Bridging the gap between in-store and online experiences with conversation

The current retail industry climate is far different than it was a decade ago. Today’s shoppers are technology-savvy, experience hungry, and have more information at their fingertips than ever before. And that means retailers (like you 😃) are facing new competitive pressures. 

How can your brand rise above the noise in the marketplace to gain shoppers’ attention?

Forward-thinking retailers understand that creating personalized, memorable experiences is essential. These companies know that each interaction must leave customers with a positive impression. As research and consulting firm KPMG explains, more people have an “experiences over things” mindset today:

In this changing market, people cherish and are investing in experiences over material possessions. New figures show consumers continue to spend less on buying things, and more on doing things (and telling the world about it on social media, of course).

For brick-and-mortar sites, offering highly-attentive service, events, and classes to customers addresses these experiential desires. For example, home furnishings giant IKEA listened to customers who said they felt like they could curl up and nap in the brand’s cozy showrooms. So, some IKEA locations hosted “sleepovers” to let select guests try out beds for an evening. Stores offered yoga, meditation, and bedtime snacks for a true one-of-a-kind experience. 

There’s no question that an amazing event like that is going to win over customers. But can you create a similar “wow factor” with your online experiences?

You definitely can, but you may need to look at the customer experience (CX) in a whole new way. To-date, retailers have focused on information-rich websites that help customers research products and compare prices. And that’s a good thing. But too often, the human and interpersonal element of the shopping experience has been missing.

Conversation is the answer.

With a conversational platform technology, you can identify when site visitors need support to progress their buying journey. And messaging connects those shoppers to real people with product experience and a passion for your brand. You can distinguish yourself as a company that cares and goes the extra mile to help customers make the best buying decisions.

Without question, retailers must take steps to upgrade their online experience or risk falling behind. In this post, we’ll explain why it’s crucial to bridge the gap between brick-and-mortar and online presence. We’ll also discuss what retailers can bring to digital from their brick-and-mortar histories.

And we’ll share some expertise on how to build a customer-focused digital strategy. For a deep dive on that critical topic, check out our white paper: Customer Experience: A Strategic Priority for Retailers and Brands.

Why Retailers Must Bridge the Gap Between Brick-and-Mortar and Online Experiences

In the not-too-distant past, consumers had one or a few sources to shop locally for goods. Shoppers would visit stores and could ask associates questions during their buying journey if they needed help. Plus, customers could see, touch, and feel products to understand how they might fit into their lifestyle and needs. 

During that era, it was common for people to develop long-term relationships with brands or retailers. Sometimes, those bonds were due to proximity alone. But back then people would often return to stores over and over again because of the friendly, supportive service they received.

Personal, Feel-Good Service Is Still Around

The personal service of days gone by is still around–but it’s most commonly found in small businesses. One example is the Wilkins Shoe Center in Winchester, VA. Founded in 1947, the family-owned store changed leadership recently but didn’t change its customer-focused service model. Personal Feel-Good Service Is Still Around iadvize conversation

The store’s motto “we sit and fit” harkens back to an older time in the shoe business. Instead of buying shoes online and hoping for the best, Wilkins’ customers get greeted by friendly associates who guide them through the purchase process. 

“Service is more important than shoes,” says Wilkins Shoe Center owner, Phil Brewer. Considering that loyal customers travel from 50 to 60 miles away to buy footwear at the store, his philosophy is proving true. The store even stays takes orders from customers who’ve moved further away and ships shoes to them directly. 

And the Virginia Retail Merchants Association has recognized the store’s exceptional dedication to service. The organization honored Wilkins Shoe Center with its prestigious Virginia Retail Merchant of the Year award. 

Retail eCommerce Sales Continue to Rise

Today, people can buy as easily from a retailer across the world as they can from one down the street. Online shopping offers incredible convenience but has its drawbacks too. It’s hard to cultivate that same deep personal connection. And customers may find it challenging to understand which products are truly best for them.

And those factors make customers less loyal–and more apt to shop around.

Many people spend at least part of their shopping journey online. A recent NPR/Marist poll found that 69% of American adults say they’ve made at least one online purchase. And 25% say they shop online at least once per month.

The popularity of online shopping is only going to grow. In fact, research firm eMarketer predicts that retail eCommerce sales in the U.S. will rise from approximately $600 billion this year to nearly $900 billion by 2022.

us retail ecommerce sales 2017 2022 iadvize conversation

How can your brand gain your share of that $300 billion pie? You should know that customers expect easy experiences online. Any friction can frustrate customers and drive them to your competitors. 

To address this need, some companies have resorted to chatbots. But most customers aren’t warming up to them. 

Why? Current chatbot deployments underscore a fundamental disconnect between corporate and customer perceptions. Brands often view chatbots as a tool to speed up routine tasks. But shoppers want the opposite. To customers, interacting with a brand shouldn’t feel routine. It should feel human and personal.

All of these factors compel your company to advance your digital strategy. You must cater to customers increasing reliance on online shopping while addressing their expectation of convenient, low-effort experiences. And you must recapture the human and personal element that is absent from most online retail interactions.

How Brands Can Build a Customer-Focused Digital Marketing Strategy

According to Forrester Research, today’s brands and retailers are dividing into camps. In one camp are retailers that don’t have a comprehensive digital strategy. And the other includes those that do have a digital strategy in place.

It’s clear which camp is positioned for success.

How can you build or revitalize the digital strategy for your brand? First, you need to empower your marketing executives to take a lead role in shaping CX. You need to acknowledge that marketing is not just about delivering a superior product at an attractive price. It’s also about designing the memorable, emotion-rich experiences your customers desire.


In addition, you need to be ready to answer customer questions at any point in the pre-sales journey. Clearly, that is the territory of marketing, not support. And with traditional service approaches, that can be hard to accomplish at scale.

Focusing on the end-to-end customer journey is also critical. You should know the steps customers go through as they engage with your brand. Seek to understand key touch points–both on and offline. Answer key questions, such as:

  • Where do customers go to get information about your brand and products? 🕵️ 🔎
  • What sources do customers rely on and trust in making purchasing decisions? 📚🤔
  • What are the customer motivations to visit your store or website? 🧗🏃‍♂️
  • How can they get help if they need it? 🙋ℹ️
  • What key factors do customers consider before making a purchase? 🔑 📊
  • What are the friction points that diminish the customer experience? 🏴‍☠️
  • Do your customers have any unmet needs after visiting your site or store? 😤😫
  • What types of complaints do you receive? 😠🤬
  • What works well–and what do customers love about doing business with you? 🤝🥰
  • What types of support do customers need after buying from you? 🙌🤹

With a journey-based approach, you can discover the best elements of offline experiences–and bring them online. You can find ways to deliver the personal touch that customers can encounter in a retail store.

To deliver standout experiences, you should use conversational marketing to personalize interactions. Capitalize on technology that lets you identify the right level of engagement for each customer. And deploy a blend of chatbots, in-house support, and community experts. 

If you aspire to be a service leader, you need to move from impersonal, one-to-many mass communications to personal, one-on-one conversations. Real-time messaging is the game-changing solution you need.

What Learnings Can Retailers Bring to Digital from Their Brick-and-Mortar Histories

Even with the steady uptick in online commerce, in-store sales remain strong. In fact, shopping in a physical store still accounts for nearly half of all consumer purchases.

Clearly, customers still see advantages to buying in stores. What’s driving this devotion to brick-and-mortar shopping? And how can you replicate those factors and experiences online?

Recent customer research offers some important insights. One annual study consistently shows that shoppers like having contact with knowledgeable store representatives. Not only do they enjoy the experience, but 94% of shoppers say they often buy more when they receive expert support.

Shoppers buy more when they receive expert support iadvize conversation

Another finding of note: 63% of consumers say they will shop the most knowledgeable source, even if the item is available at several different retailers. 

Which brick-and-mortar retailers are getting it right? A recent Forbes article highlighted a few service leaders:

Consider Sephora and Athleta. Customers are made to feel welcome and associates help them shop. Or the Apple Store, which is a giant showroom where customers are personally guided through purchases. . .

Research from PricewaterhouseCoopers conveys a similar story about customers’ appreciation for expert help. According to the PWC Future of Customer Experience Survey, Customers rate knowledgeable help as one of the most important elements in delivering an exceptional experience. Friendly service, convenience, and efficiency are also critical. Nearly 80% of American consumers say those four factors are the heart of a positive customer experience. 

What people value most in their customer experience iAdvize conversation

So what’s the takeaway? In today’s retail environment, you need to focus on giving personalized and knowledgeable service to your customers. If you can offer the right level of expert support at the right moments in each customer journey, you’ll provide the type of experience that fosters loyalty. And you’ll have opportunities for increased sales–both today and in the future.

Customers also want to interact with real people–not chatbots. And they want those personal interactions on-demand. They want to research and shop 24/7 and have prompt, knowledgeable support available exactly when they need it.

Conversation platforms connect shoppers with knowledgeable product experts in real-time. The technology identifies when visitors may need help progressing their shopping journey–and offers varied engagement options. If customers choose to converse with an expert, precise distribution rules link the customer with the person who is best able to answer their questions. Asynchronous messaging connects visitors to the right experts 24/7. 

But retailers can deploy a conversational approach without a huge in-house staffing investment. Instead, you can rely on a pool of independent experts who are passionate about your products. These experts–who come from your existing customer base–are excited to share their insights with shoppers. They are also able to able to deliver personalized advice and authentic experiences with products to help guide purchase decisions. 

Your experts gain rewards when a shopper makes a purchase. And your customer gets the best-fit product for his or her needs. That’s a clear win-win. 

Give Your Customers the Personalized Support They Want with Conversation

The rules of retail have changed in recent years. Customers have more power than before and expect the best treatment from every company they encounter. Some innovative brands have embraced the new customer-centric reality. And others have tried to get by with business as usual.

A recent Forbes article explains why outdated retail practices don’t work in today’s environment:

The old model of in-store (and even online) retail strictly focused on products being sold. However, consumers have slowly but surely been moving away from strictly shopping for products, instead of seeking a more engaging experience.

Today, every brand has a digital presence. Many provide thorough product and pricing information but bury the option to connect with a real human being on a contact page. 

Others provide chatbots that can help with some basic support questions. But these artificial intelligence (AI) tools can never replicate human connection. And they can not help answer the unique and personal customers may have when weighing buying decisions.

As PwC’s research found, companies are investing heavily in eye-catching design and advanced automation in hopes of winning over digital customers. But those efforts aren’t proving fruitful. PwC explains that: 

. . .these aren’t as essential to the experience equation as many companies believe. Customers expect technology to always work and often don’t take notice of it (unless it’s malfunctioning.)

So what is essential to the customer experience? Conversation with knowledgeable experts is key. And messaging is the underlying technology that makes conversation possible. 

With the right technology, you can link customers to real people with strong product knowledge. You can have a team of experts ready to share their enthusiasm and expertise around the clock.

Without question, conversation is the new frontier of customer experience for retailers. The forerunners who have embraced conversational marketing have seen impressive results, including increased conversion rates, transaction values, and profits.   

The path ahead is clear. The retailers that adopt conversational marketing will be able to create the “wow factor” experiences shoppers seek in stores–online. Customers will gravitate to these online retail destinations and build positive, trusting relationships that can stand the test of time.

Want to find out how to create your own premium CX strategy and stay ahead of the curve? Read our white paper: Customer Experience: A Strategic Priority for Retailers and Brands.

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