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Creating the seamless shopping experience at retail

Consumers are going to use all the tools at their hands — physical and virtual — to get want they want … now. Find out how retailers are responding.

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This story is brought to you in partnership with the Outdoor Industry Association.

While there’s much grumbling that a bulk of outdoor sales have gone to the web, it’s increasingly likely that consumers are venturing to the store, web and their mobile phones all throughout a single purchase.

Bill might research a pack online, try it on in the store, and eventually buy it on his phone. Or perhaps, a local mobile search brings Sally into the shop because it has the baselayer she wants in the right size and color, and — bonus! — she doesn’t have to wait or pay for shipping.

The purchasing journey is no longer a linear one.

No doubt, by now, you’ve heard of the omni-channel shopping experience. Consumers are going to use all the tools at their hands — physical and virtual — to get want they want … now. The immediate-gratification attribute of the millennials is driving the omni-channel trend as much as the technology.

This isn’t a story about adding e-commerce to the business. There are plenty of challenges and opportunities SNEWS has covered there. But for those retailers and brands already selling in both the physical and virtual worlds, how best can they take advantage of to the omni-channel push? How can they capture fickle and fleeting consumers, who pout and defect if they can’t find what they want?

The better term to approach the trend might be the “seamless shopping experience.”

Yes, today’s consumers want immediacy in their purchases, but all is not lost if a store doesn’t have the exact size and color right then and there. The next step to save the sale is to offer convenience. If floor staff quickly can access online inventory, find the right product and have it shipped for free to the customer, then, for many, that’s the next best thing. Chances are that’s what the customer will do anyway — the retailer or brand in this instance has just saved them some time.

Ultimately, the key to a successful omni-channel business is keeping the customer within its sphere — whether it be in the store, online, or mobile. It’s no different than the pre-Internet days of keeping a customer from walking down the street to a competitor.

For that to happen, experts say, the sales channels need to be seamless, convenient and intuitive for both staff and consumers. But how is it all working in the real world?

Outdoor Gear Exchange in Burlington, Vt. was one of the pioneers embracing what they then called the “click-and-mortar” model. Three years ago, it literally merged its physical and online business together by moving to a 45,000-square-foot space to house both ends of the business in one location.

While it’s proven very successful — “the website is a critical shopping tool for our brick-and-mortar store,” plus expanding its sales nationwide, said co-owner Marc Sherman, there are differences between the customers who shop on the web versus shopping in the store, and sometimes that means putting out different messages.

“Here’s the Catch-22,” he said. “When you’re in Vermont, I want you to come to the store and shop local. But when you’re in Denver, I want you to shop online thousands of miles away at my store. There’s a conflict of interest.”

The product merchandising online and in-store also varies. Items that are most popular online, aren’t always most popular in store, so positioning of the best-selling items — in the web’s case, higher up on the page — changes.

All that being said, Sherman acknowledges that creating more consistency between the web and store is important, especially as the dividing lines between online and in-store shoppers dwindles.

“The biggest challenge is taking the vibe and experience of the store and bringing it to web,” he said. “So much of the web is based on price because there’s a million other competitors on the Internet, whereas on Church Street [in Burlington] we’re the only one.”

Some see video as part of the solution to help bridge the gap. “Until now, it’s been a huge challenge to sell specialty items that feature quality craftsmanship,” said Fritz Brumder, CEO of Brandlive, which has helped brands and retailers broadcast live product events, sales and shopping Q&A experiences. “It’s not enough to provide an image or YouTube video. Sophisticated consumers want to know the intricate details and ask questions just as if they were in the store.”

Others, like are bringing the the very best mechanics of e-commerce — inventory tracking and online research — to drive traffic to local stores, looking to satisfy that instant-gratification need.

At Uncle Dan’s in Chicago, the specialty outdoor retailer has had website for a decade, but admittedly didn’t look at is a big part of the business until a year or so ago, said CFO Colin Moynihan. That’s when it worked with consultants to beef up its e-commerce with a significant update to the site and accompanying marketing.

Online sales spiked, Moyniham said, and it’s also led to benefits and changes to the in-store business, he said.

The language is important to create those web/store synergies, he said. Simple lines working with more complex inventory databases such as: “you can pick up this product — size medium, blue — at our Evanston store,” have proven popular with local customers.

“And the website has become a tool for our floor staff,” he added. “Sometimes, it’s even faster than our POS system.”

–David Clucas