The ubiquity of e-commerce shopping activity has had an undeniable impact on retailers in the last several years, both those with an existing brick-and-mortar presence and those that are solely online. But even in a post-COVID world where direct delivery and curbside pickup options have become relative norms, 54% of all shoppers still prefer to shop at a physical location. Some reasons for that may include the enhanced experience a customer gets from an in-person sales associate, as well as the instant gratification associated with discovering an item they really love.
How can e-commerce environments learn from the decades of experience brick-and-mortars have to create a truly excellent experience online? Ensuring an online storefront is attractive, easily navigable, and highly personalized to each visitor can help bridge the gap.
In an increasingly digital world, it may come as a surprise to retailers that online shopping isn’t as widely preferred as one might think. Unfortunately, what online shopping offers up in the way of convenience, it often lacks in sparking the joy of visiting a physical location and discovering an item that feels specially made for the shopper. While browsing for a little black dress or the perfect armchair for your living room can be an exciting and enjoyable experience in-store, it all too often becomes frustrating online. Clunky websites, confusing categories or product listings, and a lack of true personalization can make finding the “right” item online feel like a wild goose chase.
It’s important to think of how a customer’s first impression of you online may be impacting how they feel about your store in general. For stores that already have a brick-and-mortar presence, retailers should think of their e-commerce efforts as an extension of what their customers would experience in a physical store. The look and feel of the site should match what those customers have come to expect from the retailer. That means investing in an e-store design that looks elegant, funky, or modern – whatever best suits the brand identity. For those businesses that operate solely online, a beautiful store should still be a top priority. A pleasing aesthetic can mean the difference between customers taking a business seriously and trusting it with their money versus going to a competitor instead.
Secondly, the functionality of an online store is of chief importance to discourage bounces from the website. A shop should be easy to navigate, optimized for mobile devices, and contain intuitive categories and collections so that customers can easily move about the store to the right section, just as they would in a physical location. Enabling filters and keyword searches are also good starting points to help narrow a customer’s search to items they’re most interested in.
A major benefit of shopping in-store is the ability to touch items, examine them, try them on, or even contextualize them through the use of things like mannequins or displays set up by a visual merchandiser. While there are limits to how a business can mimic this experience online, it can certainly improve the current e-commerce store’s experience by investing in things like augmented reality (AR) or even rethinking product photography. Allowing customers to virtually “try on” items by uploading a picture or video is a method that has done wonders for businesses.
For example, eyewear retailer Warby Parker, which until recently solely operated online, saw a gap in their ability to match the physical experience of allowing customers to try on frames before they purchased. Their investment in AR to allow customers to do the same on their online store solved this issue. If a business is not fully committed or doesn't have the resources to invest in AR, it can still help customers make more informed decisions by getting creative about how they stage product photography.
If a retailer caters to a specific niche, it may be worthwhile to stage items in an environment that will help a customer envision themselves using that product in a real way. Another way to achieve this feeling is by leveraging user-generated content (UGC) from existing customers. Content created by customers and uploaded as a review to the site or on social media can be persuasive to potential customers because they are likely to identify much more with a fellow shopper.
Some brick-and-mortar stores also serve as a community gathering spot for customers. If a business’ physical storefront offers educational sessions, meetups, or other valuable resources in addition to the sale of its products, the store should consider how it can move some of those things to a virtual format. Creating videos, posting blogs, or offering live sessions with sales associates that can be recommended to online shoppers based on their on-site behavior are all examples of how to achieve this.
E-commerce retailers must have a solid understanding of what constitutes true 1:1 personalization. For too long, mediocre recommendations in homepage carousels have passed for e-commerce personalization. An “out-of-the-box” AI solution to personalization is an oxymoron in the sense that you can’t truly personalize something to an individual by broadly deploying the same recommendations to audience segments using past or aggregate data.
An in-person sales associate inherently has the upper hand over traditional e-commerce recommendation setups. Why? Because a sales associate can watch a customer who walks in the store interact with products, ask them questions about their taste or preferences, and guide them in the right direction accordingly. This dynamic will continue to be the norm unless retailers are willing to invest in advanced and highly-tailored AI solutions that can analyze rich behavior data on-site, such as clicks, scrolls, and likes. All of that behavior data paired with an intelligent AI methodology and enhanced recommendation engine can make that helpful sales associate experience possible online.
Up until recently, third-party cookies were the preferred method of personalizing experiences in the e-commerce world. But in reality, customers reveal so much more about their wants, needs, preferences, and tastes through first-party data: clicks, scrolls, saves, favorites, and more. This data is at an e-commerce retailer’s disposal; the problem is most don’t have the tools handy to properly leverage it to its full potential. Using the right AI models and recommendation engine, businesses can replicate the sales associate experience you get in a store in the e-commerce environment.
Third-party data recommendations puts customers into overly broad groups, which often leads to carousels filled with items that are either the most popular, new, or something that a customer previously viewed (and likely decided they weren’t interested in). In a brick-and-mortar store, this would be akin to a salesperson showing a customer the same item they picked up and set back down multiple times until the customer finally got frustrated and left.
When an e-commerce store can leverage observations about in-the-moment actions of customers moving about its website, it can identify what customers are most interested in and deemphasize things that they aren’t, leading to a much more satisfying experience for the customer. In the end, everyone leaves happy because the customer has found their new favorite item faster and the business has made a sale.