RSR Research: Romancing the Store

Discussion
Oct 11, 2010

Commentary by Nikki Baird, Managing Partner, Retail Systems Research

Through
a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of an article
from Retail Paradox, Retail Systems Research’s weekly analysis
on emerging issues facing retailers.

At a special meeting of the Cross-Channel
Retail Consortium held before the Shop.org event, one question that was
raised drew a surprising answer from the retail participants: Is it true that
you see the store experience falling behind now or is your focus on making
the online experience more like the store?

Almost universally the participants
responded that the store is by far the better experience. The bigger surprise
was that the retail participants at the meeting were all from e-commerce, though
one person had actually landed the role coming from the store side of his business.
And the revelation came even though many of the retailers who were in the room
were those I had personally experienced poor customer service with — everything
from selling floors littered with product, being completely ignored, to being
told “I can’t help you
[find that in another store]” when I know they can.

But then I realized
that these people — passionate about the retailers they work for — weren’t
really talking about the actual store experience;
they were talking about the ideal store experience.

So, while it is true
that the “ideal” store experience can’t be
matched in a quality customer interaction — and there are probably hundreds
or thousands of those ideal interactions happening every day — what I wonder
is, how many interactions are happening that are less than ideal?

For example,
the product information on the website is always consistently reliable. How
about getting even half as much good information out of a store employee or
even consistent information from one store employee to another? And last time
I checked, the website does not get trashed during the holidays.

While I appreciate
that every retailer is always striving to provide the best store experience
out there, I am today sounding a note of caution. The assumption has long been
that the store experience is better than the online experience. I don’t think
you can make that assumption any longer. The web has better information, much
more information, greater odds of hitting a consistent (and higher) level of
service and, depending on the time of year, it may actually look better and
be easier to shop than your store. It’s dangerous to romanticize the store experience
because it takes so much more and so much longer to fix a store experience than
it does to fix an online experience.

If you’re not thinking about how online assets
can improve the store experience now, then you’re going to be behind the curve
— way behind.

Discussion Questions: Is the online shopping experience catching up to the
in-store shopping experience? What do brick & mortar stores have to do to
maintain their edge over online shopping?

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19 Comments on "RSR Research: Romancing the Store"


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Bob Phibbs
Guest
10 years 7 months ago

There is such a disconnect between the ivory tower solos touting their excellent customer focus and the actual experience in their stores. Until such execs take off their rose-colored glasses and admit they’ve commoditized their own brand, online will be the threat. Why drive to have a miserable experience when I can order online and at least click the “chat with someone now” button?

Gregory Belkin
Guest
Gregory Belkin
10 years 7 months ago

I think there are many more hoops to be jumped through before anybody can say that the Web and the in-store experience are truly equal in terms of either expected revenue or consumer experience. Each channel has its benefits and drawbacks that make a “catch up” comparison difficult to establish.

Web channels benefit from 24/7 accessibility but are challenged by potential downtime, incorrect search results, payment processing challenges, and overall customer disloyalty.

At the store, retailers benefit from a human sales effort but are only as good as their presentation and immediate product availability allow them to be. Each channel has its own benefits, but they will always serve different types of needs for different types of people.

Obviously, a big goal is to provide consistency among these two channels but, even with that, for many consumers, they are apples and oranges.

Max Goldberg
Guest
10 years 7 months ago

The in-store experience is not just about customer service, it’s being able to physically touch the product, try out its features, make sure it fits properly and compare its colors and other styles. Online comes up short in each of these areas, and the online representative on the panel knew that.

Retailers need to focus on the best attributes of their in-store and online experiences, and allow the consumer to make a seamless transition between the two. Great customer service is needed at both, but it is not the end all and be all of the consumer experience.

Paul R. Schottmiller
Guest
Paul R. Schottmiller
10 years 7 months ago

The smart mobile devices (smartphones, tablets) are becoming the great channel equalizers. No question the emphasis today is on bringing more of the online capabilities to the customer in-store for the bricks and clicks players. We have evolved from multiple channel to multi-channel,and in 10 years it will simply be ONE CHANNEL, EVERYWHERE.

Marge Laney
Guest
10 years 7 months ago

The trouble with the premise that the web experience is better than the brick and mortar experience and vice versa is that it demands that we choose one over the other. Both have advantages and disadvantages depending on what we’re shopping for, where we are, how fast we need something, etc. The smart and winning retailers will create a blended ‘oneline’ experience that will allow their customers to seamlessly move on and offline without notice of one experience being better than the other. If you doubt this can be done, check out Nordstrom they have accomplished this flawlessly.

Gene Hoffman
Guest
Gene Hoffman
10 years 7 months ago

The challenge for brick and mortar retailers is finding a way to activate into 2010 mainstream technology and thinking. It isn’t enough just to wait for online shopping to get old and tired, if it ever will in our lifetimes.

B & M retailers have to update and romance the experience of being involved with the lively human environment, to be able to touch your purchase and then compliment it with online support. Otherwise we could (possibly) be seeing a monopoly of methodology arising.

Bill Emerson
Guest
Bill Emerson
10 years 7 months ago

In theory, the in-store experience has many advantages over the online experience. It can set an ambiance to enhance the product and shopping experience, show effectively how the product is best worn/used, enable the tactile experience of how it feels, build multiple sales through cross-marketing, speak to a local demographic, and — the really big one — allow the customer the instant gratification of walking out with the purchase.

This is all in theory of course. The reality is that, due largely to over-building, there is simply way too much 4-wall selling space. 4-wall retailers have followed a path of competing on price that leaves only expense and capital reductions as a way to remain profitable. This, in turn, has diminished/eliminated the advantages listed above.

It’s not so much that the online experience has improved, although it certainly has. It is the fact that the 4-wall experience has worsened to a point that there are very few advantages.

Ben Ball
Guest
10 years 7 months ago
To me this is a classic “it depends…” question. As Nikki pointed out, it clearly rests mightily on whether the actual in-store experience of the day matches up to the one in the retailer’s mind’s eye. But it also depends on what I’m shopping for that day–routine purchases or looking for that special sweater that’s “just right.” What kind of mood I’m in counts too. Am I grumpy and in a hurry (normal) or am I feeling like a nice leisurely browse? Is it a product or service I understand well, or would I like to have that typically knowledgeable floor clerk at Best Buy help me figure this one out? This question brings to mind the old TQM courses–especially Crosby–which would start out with the question “define ‘quality’.” All sorts of comparisons would jump out. Rolls Royce versus Chevrolet. Mont Blanc versus Bic. But the instructor would put things in perspective when they defined “quality” as “meeting expectations or specifications.” So, you can have a low quality Mont Blanc that is rejected for defects–or… Read more »
Steve Montgomery
Guest
10 years 7 months ago

I agree with the comments above that when rating customers’ experience we have to consider their expectations. My expectations are far different when shopping online than in the store. Like all of us, I have been pleased and dismayed with both.

Frankly, I like seeing the product, touching it, trying it, etc. That does not mean I don’t make online purchase but generally only for those things I have already had experience with (or in some cases cannot find in a store within reasonable driving distance given the item I am seeking).

I would think that rather than seeing them as competitive, they should be viewed as complimentary. The goal for the retailer is to provide a pleasant experience regardless of what a customer chooses.

Mark Burr
Guest
10 years 7 months ago

The answer really is Who knows? We don’t. It is not out of the realm of possibility. But 20 years ago, only a rare few could envision its vast expanse.

In many ways, depending on channel, shopping is and will remain touch, feel, smell, etc. So, is it reality for everything? No. Is it absolutely possible for many? Yes. Shopping online retailers like L.L.Bean, Zappos, and others give the inclination that it’s totally possible.

The catch is, something completely different could happen between now and then to change everything! I think that’s more likely than we think!

Even 10 years ago, I don’t think many can honestly say they were thinking ‘Kindle’.

Ed Rosenbaum
Guest
10 years 7 months ago

How can we determine if the online web experience is better or the actual feet in the store is better? It depends on one’s preference and time allotment when we chooses.

The on line experience gives certain amenities the store does not offer. The store is far superior to those shoppers who actually want/need to touch feel and try on the objects they want.

What does the in store environment need? Customer service training…customer service skills…customer service, period.

I am reminded of the auto industry execs who thought their product could never be touched in terms of quality when the Japanese were succeeding in getting a foothold in American sales and at the same time the American consumer was complaining about quality. The auto execs did not listen and now have been struggling to stay alive for close to twenty years. The same lack of concern for the public needs and wants will have a continuing negative affect on the retail industry, specifically the larger footprints.

Doug Stephens
Guest
Doug Stephens
10 years 7 months ago

In my opinion, the question that smart brands should be asking is not whether the online experience is better than the store experience. The question they should be working to answer is “how can we bring the best of both into ONE INTEGRATED EXPERIENCE?”

Best in class retailers will bring all the convenience of online shopping together with the tangible, human aspects of in-store shopping and wrap the two together with strong a tie to the consumer’s social graph. It will be essentially the same experience, whether you’re at home or in the store.

Forget the online versus in-store distinction. In ten years you’ll have two kinds of retailers; those that deliver a totally integrated brand experience and those that fell behind the curve.

Gene Detroyer
Guest
10 years 7 months ago
First, the brick and mortar retailers must understand that the future is not an extension of the past. There are several examples in this discussion already suggesting that no one would have envisioned the online retail environment that exists exists. Here is the exercise that brick and mortar retailers must do…. Assume in today’s world there are NO brick and mortar stores. People can get all the goods they want online. They have choices beyond comprehension. They have more information than they need. They can buy from any place they happen to be; the office, home, or even through their smart phones. Now, you have this great idea to build a store. You are going to actually have the goods in the store. You will even have people there to help the shoppers. But, you feel that there must be more than just having the goods in the store to make people get in their cars, take their precious free time to come to your store and risk you not having what they want. You… Read more »
Michael L. Howatt
Guest
Michael L. Howatt
10 years 7 months ago

I think we also need to look at this by age group. I would suspect that the older the group, the more they are tied to the in-store experience–no matter how good or bad the customer service, shelf layout, etc. If this IS true, then expect the pendulum to swing ever more towards online shopping in the future. Of course there will always be those categories for which “touchy-feely” is a given (meat, fresh fruit and veggies, certain types of clothing…) but by the time the 2 become equal, all of us Baby Boomers will be too old to know it.

Bill Bittner
Guest
Bill Bittner
10 years 7 months ago
There is obviously not just one answer to this question. The retail service ranges from the sit down restaurant to the car dealership. Depending on what they’re shopping for, consumers will vary their approach. Even if it is not meant to finalize the sale, the online presence of a business can have a huge impact on its brick and mortar results. Online presence varies from online menus and reservation systems for restaurants to detail product descriptions and virtual design tools for automobiles. In the middle, you have online catalogs and home delivery options for finished goods. I have been told there are people who enjoy shopping. For those people I imagine store visits will always be the preference. By augmenting their experience with phone based product and pricing data a retailer can offer the best of both worlds, the consistent information from an authoritative source combined with the immediate satisfaction of walking out the door with a new product under their arm. I tend to agree that the online presence will never replace the store… Read more »
Herb Sorensen, Ph.D.
Guest
10 years 7 months ago

The best online retailers clearly have a vastly more accurate picture of what is going on in their stores than do the bricks and mortar crowd. This is a direct consequence of the fact that they have a one-on-one experience with the shopper, albeit by algorithm. The online retailer actually is engaged in SELLING to the shopper while the bricks and mortar retailer is a merchant manager of shelf displays where the selling is left to the shopper. It is a fiction that offline retailers are shopper/sales experts.

Doug Fleener
Guest
10 years 7 months ago

Great post Nikki. Thank you.

I have to agree with Doug. Besides sharing the same first name, I agree that what retailers need to do is create an integrated experience that leverages the strength of each channel.

I had a great experience with Tommy Bahama yesterday. I started online where I got the information I needed, and then went to a store where I received a fabulous experience. My salesperson Alex understood my needs, helped me find the right products, and as a result I spent three times more than I what I would have bought online.

Oh by the way, Alex is 19 years old. This is his first retail job and he’s been at it all of three weeks. The store experience is all about the right people and the right leadership at all levels of the organization.

Ted Hurlbut
Guest
Ted Hurlbut
10 years 7 months ago

Nikki, with all due respect, you’re thinking too rationally. Shopping isn’t a purely rational activity. The very best in-store experiences connect with shoppers in a sensory way that can’t be replicated online. A memorable in-store experience will always be more impactful than an online experience because it engages more of the senses.

Which isn’t to say that amongst the major national retailers there are a lot of well-conceived and executed in-store experiences. Still, the opportunity is powerful. Even a less than perfectly conceived and executed in-store experience can still have a positive impact on the customer.

Mark Price
Guest
Mark Price
10 years 7 months ago

I believe that there is a fundamental inconsistency in the question that was asked here. The assumption behind the question is that there is a difference between the online and off-line shopping experiences. I think it’s very possible that in the future the two different experiences will meld, as customers bring smart phones into the retail environment, and innovative retailers determine new ways to “bring the store into the home.” I really see a blended future, where the benefits of online are leveraged both inside the store and out.

In addition, there is a fundamental flaw in assuming that there is only one kind of customer that purchases from a given retailer. Different types of customers (segments) will have different needs and very in the amount of in-store support versus online support that they need to have in order to experience their version of an ideal customer experience.

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