Mike Cassidy

Apr 24, 2014

The difference between in-store and online shopping is shrinking fast

You’d have a hard time finding anyone to argue against the proposition that online and brick-and-mortar shopping are fast merging into one shopping experience.

People like me, for instance, have been writing about the new rules of retailing for years. But every now and then something comes along that drives the point home and illustrates just how far and how fast we’re moving to a new shopping paradigm.

Maybe it was your last trip to the mall that flipped the switch. Or maybe it was simply reading the news of the day. Last week two stories were posted within hours of each other that made me stop and think about how different the buying experience is today than it was even five years ago.

The first was a Chicago Tribune piece about the way online retailers are using pop-up stores to feed the need of some shoppers who like to touch and see the the things they want to buy, and who like to get fashion advice from a person, in person. The second story, from the Dow Jones News Wire is about Gap Inc.’s move to see to it that shoppers can place online orders while in the company’s stores.

So, on the one hand, online retailers, like Indochino, want to make sure cyber-shoppers have a store to go to, while brick-and-mortar outfits, like the Gap, want to make sure that those strolling its aisles have a website to go to.

All right, as fun as the juxtaposition is, the fact is that both moves are part of the same story: Customers are more savvy than ever and as the Internet hurtles forward they are armed with more information and more choices than ever before. That means that providing customers with a memorable and satisfying experience is more crucial than ever before.

“The big buzz words are omnichannel and omni-device,” Jeremy Hull, iProspect’s director of bought search media told me recently. “That’s a user-driven need. Users don’t see channels. They don’t see devices. They just interact and if you’re not there, where they’re looking for you, when they’re looking for you, that’s a miss.”

And the truth is that shoppers can’t be sorted into tidy baskets — those who prefer to shop online, those who prefer to shop in store, those who prefer mobile etc. — because each individual shopper might have a different preference depending on what they’re shopping for, when they need it, how long they have to get it and any number of other factors.

And so that crucial customer experience must be built across all those channels for every consumer.

Customer experience can be one of those phrases that’s a little squishy, to use the technical term. But think about it: Shoppers want to visit stores and websites that know who they are, what they like and what they might like instead. They sometimes, or some of them, want to be able to look at a suit’s material or try on a pair of jeans before they buy. Or they might want to see every other style of jeans that is available, even if they’re not in stock at a particular store.

“I like the in-person contact, having a professional’s advice,” law student Huy Nguyen, 22, told the Tribune as he shopped for a suit at online retailer Indochino’s temporary pop-up store in downtown Chicago. “If I measure myself at home, I don’t know if I’m doing it correctly.”

For its part Indochino and other pop-up providers understand that building a personal experience — personal as in one-to-one personalization — is key to winning the day in a retail battle that is becoming more fierce by the day.

And using pop-up stores is one way to build that experience. As the Tribune explained, quoting Indochino CEO Kyle Vucko:

“In addition, ‘we get to understand who our customers are, what motivates them, what they already own from a clothing perspective, so we … can better create a full wardrobe or understand what they need to buy next,’ Vucko said. The significant investment in the shops includes hiring locals to serve as style guides so they better know each region’s style preferences.”

The challenge, of course, is to keep track of those perspectives and needs across shopping channels — mobile, tablet, desktop and in-store. That way a loyal online shopper doesn’t feel like a stranger when he walks into your store (pop-up or otherwise); and a loyal in-store shopper doesn’t sense the cold shoulder when she heads to your website.

The term of art for doing it right is “omnichannel,” a word I’m trying to banish, but one I’m having a hard time avoiding.

“Retailers in recent quarters have been trumpeting the integration of brick and mortar stores with online and mobile commerce,” Dow Jones reports, “typically referred to as ‘omnichannel.’ Such strategies can involve having shoppers pick up online orders in stores, or having online orders ship from a local store location instead of a distant warehouse.”

And so Gap Inc., which owns the Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic, will soon make sure its in-store customers can do that. For instance, if a customer finds the perfect Lived-in Slub T-shirt, well perfect except for the size, he can order it at a kiosk or with the help of a sales associate and have it delivered to his home or the store.

Admittedly, when it comes to combining the online and in-store experience, it’s hard to know where all this is going next. The only sure thing is that it’s going somewhere; and it’s going there fast.

Photo of pop-up store sign by Sasha Bellamkonda, suits by Tres Bien published under a Creative Commons license. Jeremy Hull photo courtesy of Jeremy Hull.

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Reach him at mike.cassidy@bloomreach.com and follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy