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Brick & Mortar Retail: Bridging the physical vs. digital divide to survive

Bridging the physical vs. digital divide to survive

The retail apocalypse! The death of retail! COVID-19!

More often than not you’ll hear that “digital” is akin to the grim reaper knocking at the brick and mortar retail industry’s door. On top of this, COVID-19 has made life extremely difficult for physical retail and accelerated the shift into an online focus, adding to the fervour of the doomsayers. From another angle though, factors like the rise of e-commerce and accelerated digitization due to COVID-19 have and will have an undeniably positive influence on brick & mortar stores. They’re forced to adapt, re-invent and re-imagine a model that has been stagnant for decades, questioning their purpose, their model and, most importantly, their experience and very existence. Digital has forced retailers to explore new capabilities out of necessity, and in doing so has enabled those with the right mindset to rekindle a long-lost mojo.

They’re finding new and innovative ways to encourage consumers to leave their sofas and smart phones, and come and visit stores:

  • Strong, relevant and curated product focused on a clear target consumers, as opposed to pushing product on the sales floor to the faceless masses.

  • Outstanding presentation and creation of that wonderful emotional moment when the consumer sees a beautiful window and immediately falls in love with the product.

  • Offering real, relevant and personal service and hospitality – from sales floor stockists to personal stylists and after-sales experiences.

"Crucially, the technological revolution has enabled retailers to involve consumers far beyond the buying process. How? By delivering experiences that lead to holistic and long-term consumer loyalty through a seamless combination of physical and digital, real and virtual."

Today, retail is going through a period of rapid digitization. Consumers enter stores with smartphones in their hands. They are constantly connected and that little device is the nucleus of their universe and the translator between these two worlds. They expect your store to be speaking to them. Furthermore, people are increasingly looking for and valuing experiences over things, driven by technology and the growing trend against out-and-out consumption and towards sustainability. If they can relevantly connect with your brand through transparent and authentic connected experiences, they are more likely to want your products, buy your products and make repeat purchases. If they cannot, you’re dead to them. This means retailers need to create an integrated, interactive, personal, customized, and fluid connection to the people who shop with them. From online to offline and vice-versa, the consumer journey needs to be “phygital”. Giving people the right mix of tangible and virtual experiences helps to incentivise engagement, providing the foundation for a mutually valuable and convenient relationship. As with personal relationships, consumer relationships need to be nurtured, curated and continuously improved. For brands and retailers this means using data.

It requires creating a situation in which consumers are happy to willingly and transparently provide the necessary insights to improve their experience. Not enough brands or retailers simply state their intentions or the direct benefits. From just making things easier, to enabling people to truly involve themselves in product creation processes and personalization, data is at the heart of the opportunities afforded retailers in the digital age, if they’re willing to put the effort into making its use consumer-centric.

Today data and technology are the cornerstone of sustainable retail performance.

Enabling enhanced experiences and embedding the dynamic ability to remain relevant to core consumers and audience as well as to uncover and target new ones. Paradoxically, all of this means that online retail is becoming increasingly tangible. The question now becomes: how can we take what we have learnt from the “adapt or die” situation that brick and mortar retail finds itself in? How can we apply the renewed understanding of what motivates consumers to buy in stores, and apply it to the online world of shopping? How can we provide a more direct and seamless link between these two worlds, from guided consumer journeys and curated products to personal service and community sharing?

The next frontier for retail is the elusive unforgettable online retail experience. Consumers are becoming increasingly accustomed to and expectant of a high standard of service in stores.

The same cannot yet be said for the world of e-commerce which is stuck in a cycle of endless scrolling, tiled pictures of 2D product and terrible filters and navigation. For most consumers, the website is the home of the brand; for most brands the website and shopping experience isn’t great. In fact, it’s likely to be exactly the same as every other brand. This is the place for merging channels to create an unforgettable retail experience and a stronger engagement with brand. The emphasis, just as it has for brick and mortar retail, needs to shift to being fundamentally about the experience which is fast becoming the only way to truly differentiate.

In this fast-growing market of multiple and mixed realities and digital evolution, accelerated by the pandemic situation, it has never been more important to define the role you play as retailer in the lives of your consumers and to target them accurately and accordingly in the right channels. Brick & mortar needs to come together with online shopping and vice-versa.

Offline retail under the cloud of COVID-19 is receiving another hit in many countries right now, but it will be back, it will adapt, and it will survive, albeit in new ways and forms. Consumers will have to be coaxed back by highlighting the personal and social experience potential of physical stores, people and communities. In a digital age and under unique circumstances we are still human, and live social encounters are still the cornerstones of our experience. In brick and mortar retail, it will be those who match the best of physical with the best of digital who will come out of this with the least damage and the brightest outlook.


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