The Future of Retail: Digital versus Real World
Posted by Jennifer Wolfe on 29th September 2014 in 360 Blog

Sometimes I’m not sure which world is the real one. The one I live in online via Twitter, Facebook, You Tube, email and surfing everything I need all day online or the one that happens when I leave work and get in my car. But even then, do I want the real experience or the digital experience? One of my favorite hobbies, a little retail therapy, is even more fun online these days. If I go to the mall, I have to fight traffic, find a place to park, and walk around trying to find what I need. Then I have to hope they have something I like in my size or the color I want, and if I realize I also need something for my son, I have to walk all over the place looking for it. All too often, what I want is not in stock and the store has to order it for me anyway. Then I have to carry all the bags back to my car and fight traffic again. Back at home, however, the experience is altogether different. I can keep track of what I need and then when I have time in the evening or on the weekend, I can jump online with a tablet. I can search from one store to the next and compare prices, colors, sizes and check sales. I can read reviews people have written and decide what I want. I can shop all over the place while relaxing by the pool in the summer or a cozy fire in the winter. And since most places offer free shipping and sometimes even free returns, when I’m not sure which size is right, I might just order two. A few days later the nice UPS truck driver pulls down my driveway and cheerfully drops off boxes and boxes to my complete delight. I can leisurely try things on and decide what I want and what needs to be returned. The same for my growing son. Rather than dragging him to the mall, we order online and then decide what works. What could be easier?

As this becomes the norm for more and more shoppers who come to expect this to be the experience, how will retailers differentiate the in person retail experience? They will need to combine this digital world with the in-store expectations and create destination experiences that make me want to get in my car, fright traffic, find a place to park and navigate the labyrinth of the retail jungle. This is where some retailers are getting it right. Apple and Microsoft have created destination experiences that can’t compare online. Nordstrom and Saks have personalized shopping experiences for its most dedicated customers. And, Williams Sonoma offers cooking demonstrations. I have to say when it comes to food, you just can’t smell or taste what they’re cooking on a You Tube channel, but you can in person. And, if Williams Sonoma were savvy, they would be walking around with tablets helping you buy everything you need online to be shipped for free to your house so you wouldn’t have to carry anything with you.

The digital experience is continuing to evolve and be enhanced. We spend half or more of our lives in the digital world at work and for most of us in our personal lives too. Our in person experiences are becoming smaller and smaller. Restaurants, of course, will always be in person experiences and not replaced online – what fun would that be? But, retailers will have to move quickly to combine the digital world with the real world. Thinking holistically, how do you integrate social, mobile, and online with a destination based experience that ensures your customer loyalty? Retailers will continue to face fiscal challenges with increasing rents and decreasing traffic. Carefully blending the online digital expectations with retail destination experiences will be critical to success as people spend more of their lives in the digital world.