Showroom for Improvement: Blending the Virtual with Reality

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Customer Experience
Customer Experience
Though many retail brands believe showrooming to be a threat to the brick-and-mortar experience, those that look to blend the benefits of technology and in-store engagement will develop an environment that fosters customer satisfaction and increased sales

Technology has the power to revolutionize the way retailers do business. From smartphones to e-commerce, it's easy to see these emerging capabilities have already made a significant impact in the way consumers interact with their favorite brands. But, as these advancements continue to alter how shoppers carry out daily tasks, many companies fear they'll be left behind. Today, as mobile devices grow in prevalence, retailers are wary of the repercussions, as showrooming appears to be gaining momentum, as well. Shoppers may frequent a brand's brick-and-mortar location, but with the help of their smartphones, these consumers can quickly find better deals online. Though potentially threatening to the success of many physical locations, retailers must not look to this trend as a detriment, but an opportunity to integrate these popular online channels and improve their in-store strategies.

Michael Whitehouse, senior marketing strategist at OpinionLab, encourages retailers to embrace mobile-enabled experiences. "Don't pretend the future isn't here," he says. "Use these trends to increase the level of engagement in-store. Now, consumers carry the Web in their pocket, and brands are able to bring all the magic of the site to life and use this tool to guide and structure the in-store experience."

Instead, more and more companies are realizing that, while online shopping may be convenient, many consumers still find great value in and seek out the in-store experience. Some shoppers desire the one-on-one assistance they receive from in-store staff, while others simply love to wander among the racks and shelves, thereby opening up an opportunity for retailers to catch consumers' attention and encourage them to buy goods they otherwise have never discovered. Even though smartphones have clearly become a shopping companion in their own right, retailers that understand the blending of these consumer behaviors unleash the opportunity to build stronger relationships and boost sales.

"By embracing the physical store, retailers can extend their presence and reach consumers in a way they just can't online," says Michael Ellis, partner at 5+ Design. "The physical store environment supports the brand and allows for interesting experience and accidental discoveries that make people want to come see you." Today, many brick-and-mortar retailers are using these factors to their advantage, integrating technology to enhance their offerings, while numerous e-tailers are recognizing this mindset and bringing their online presence to life in the physical world.

Tapping into the Touchscreen's Potential

While touchscreens have taken over the way many consumers shop, such mobile devices have also begun to revolutionize the way retailers operate in-store. In many instances, because tablet usage is on the rise among retailers, brands must find ways to leverage this technology to cultivate more positive customer experiences and boost customer loyalty. As Gary Edwards, chief customer officer at Empathica, emphasizes, tablets offer brands a unique opportunity to integrate new channels into their in-store customer experience strategies, potentially generating real returns for retailers in the form of sales. Such tools also open up the opportunity to gather insight into the brick-and-mortar customer experience.

"Managers can gather exclusive customer data by utilizing tablets in-store," Edwards notes. "Customers concerned with privacy may not provide personal information to a store employee, but would gladly enter the same information at a tablet-equipped kiosk for a discount or contest. Tablets give retailers another opportunity to collect customer data and generate customer insights at the local level. Local managers can then use these insights to create better customer experiences at their stores."

For companies like Moosejaw Mountaineering, the outdoor gear and apparel retailer, mobile has become an essential tool in connecting customers with more products than the store can carry. The retailer purposely uses its physical locations as showrooms, using the mobile price checking trend to its advantage by enabling customers to explore Moosejaw's 80,000 product warehouse via smartphone of an associate's mobile POS device, not just the 5,000 products housed within each store. Apple has also acknowledged the use of mobile by allowing consumers to process their own in-store purchases through the Apple Store application without ever needing a customer service representative's help.

Readily available tablets and touch devices may also encourage increased customer reviews, as firsthand recommendations have a huge impact on decision-making. Edwards highlights that customers frequently forget to write about their experiences once they leave the business. However, by installing tablets in-store, customers can easily share feedback at the point of sale. These reviews allow retailers to implement customer suggestions, while promoting customer advocacy and building brand reputation.

Bonobos and Piperlime Bring Online Shops to Life

For Bonobos and Piperlime, life began online. Yet, while each retailer roots its existence in e-commerce, consumer sentiment has enabled both to grow and evolve alongside the customer experience. Both have set the stage for online shops looking to move from the screen to the store, as their "build it backwards" approach promotes superior service through listening to and understanding precisely what consumers want from their shopping experiences.

Bonobos, the men's clothing and accessory store, grew its loyal community with flexible online policies, allowing shoppers to purchase multiple sizes and styles, try these items on for size, and ship unwanted pieces back to the company for free, only paying for what they decide to keep. But, while Bonobos originally based its methods on alleviating the unwanted task of traipsing to the mall only to find ill-fitting clothing, the brand also recognized that many consumers desired the in-store experience of testing different styles without the hassle of returns.

In response, Bonobos has launched numerous retail locations across the country, including New York City, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco. Known as Guideshops, these stores purposely act as showrooms for the brand's selection. While the average retailer must stock each item in various colors and sizes right within the store, Bonobos only carries one of each particular item so customers may test the numerous styles and sizes, then order the look they like best straight from Bonobos' site. Though no one emerges with goods in hand, shipments are often delivered the next day. Also, by limiting the number of necessary employees and the need to manage a fully stocked back room, the brand can cut down on the overhead costs many other brick-and-mortar retailers incur, ultimately resulting in lower prices for the consumer.

Piperlime, a division of Gap, Inc., spent its first six years as an online women's apparel, shoes, jewelry, and handbag retailer, bringing together well-known brands and lesser-known designers in an Internet boutique atmosphere. But, last September, the brand opened its first store in SoHo in response to the demand for a physical location. Often times, the full shopping experience hinges upon the ability to go somewhere and peruse the stores with friends or family-a feeling consumers cannot duplicate while sitting in front of their computer screens. Instead, Piperlime wanted to provide customers with a new way to experience the brand and develop deeper customer relationships.

Designed to evoke the feel of Piperlime's website, the white signs throughout store present the same fonts, colors, and language customers are already accustomed to, along with the retailer's high and low price points, iconic and discovery brands, and style advice. The brick-and-mortar location utilizes the company's e-commerce distribution centers to get products to stores, carrying only a light inventory in-store that is then replenished frequently. Kiosks throughout the store also offer customers a direct link to Piperlime's site, enabling access to all additional products available online. Online orders placed in-store receive free overnight shipping, extending the convenience of online shopping to the retail store and blurring the lines between the virtual boutique and the physical location.

EXPERT OPINION
EXPERT OPINION