Back when Amazon had yet to begin its remarkable ascent to the lofty position it has now held for years, did those in the retail industry already have some idea of how online retail was going to change things? Or did they write it off as a gimmick with limited usefulness and niche appeal? It’s difficult to tell now due to revisionist history: no one wants to admit to having fervently argued that ecommerce would never amount to anything significant or widespread.
Either way, change inevitably barrelled over the horizon and left massive damage in its wake. As internet infrastructure improved, websites got better, and courier services moved with the times, conventional stores started to feel the pain of seeing their sales go to upstart online retailers. Some started to proclaim the impending death of brick-and-mortar retail — rather dramatically, of course, since it was never going to disappear entirely.
Today, there’s a fairly clear distinction regarding territory. Brick-and-mortar retail retains the edge for groceries and contends when it comes to gifts, items of clothing, materials, appliances, and medical products. Ecommerce essentially dominates in every other area. This suitably reflects where their respective strengths lie: if you need to buy in bulk, inspect some products in person, and/or have your items immediately, conventional retail is still preferable.
The point is that even though ecommerce has radically changed the retail world, it hasn’t made brick-and-mortar retail obsolete. In fact, we’re steadily moving towards hybrid retail: sales services that sell online and offline, using their real and digital stores together (e.g. order online and collect in a store) to provide maximum convenience and supreme customer experiences.
Due to this, anyone running a standard ecommerce store should see the value in drawing from the fantastic strategic resource that is the well-established model of traditional retail. Across hundreds of years, sellers have worked out reliable methods for selling, many of which are applicable in ecommerce. In this post, we’re going to set out some examples of what ecommerce merchants can learn from brick-and-mortar sellers, so let’s get to them:
Scarcity is a Reliable Driver of Sales
One of the fundamental advantages of shopping online is that stock for most things is seemingly unlimited. You’re not drawing from specific stores with limited capacity: you’re drawing from entire systems comprising numerous warehouses, so as long as a product is available in just one of them, your order can be fulfilled. For retailers, though, this is also a disadvantage.
Why? Because allowing the supply of a product to come across as boundless means that there’s no urgency behind purchases outside of situations where external circumstances (imminent social events, for instance) require people to get certain items as soon as possible — and in those situations, the shoppers are likely to turn to the immediacy of physical stores.
Does this mean that online sellers should start artificially restricting their stock or making vague claims like “HURRY, GOING FAST”? No, it doesn’t, as actions like that are likely to annoy people in the end. Instead, they should turn to more limited-edition items, and perhaps try working in some physical retail through running pop-up shops: to quote, “A temporary pop-up shop with a definite end date inspires shoppers to visit prior to missing out.”.
The idea is simple enough: you find an area with a good amount of footfall, and take your products there to showcase them to passers-by and hopefully convince them to buy. Said purchasing is made possible through some kind of purpose-built ecommerce POS (point of sale) system that can accept payments and sync them up with the inventory of your online store. This can be done through your smartphone or tablet device: take contactless payments and you won’t even need to waste any time trying to sort cash.
It works because it’s new, different, and ephemeral. Your pop-up store wasn’t there before, and the shoppers know that it won’t be around for very long, so if they’re interested in buying then they need to act quickly. Promote it well online (ahead of time if possible) to drum up interest, document it to make some useful blog content, sell as many products as you can, and move on.
Impulse Buys Work at the Checkout
Plotting the arrangement of a large store has traditionally been about understanding psychology and using it to maximize sales. The most obvious indication of this is the crafty positioning of staple purchases (things like bread, milk, rice, or butter) at the back of stores, requiring most shoppers to make complete circuits and have to walk past all the other products (and potentially be tempted by them) in the process.
Now, that doesn’t work so well with online stores, and there are two big reasons for this. Firstly, the best way to approximate putting items in ‘the back’ is to bury them under a lot of menus, but shoppers can rely on brick-and-mortar grocery stores to stock those items even if they can’t yet see them — something they can’t do when using unfamiliar (and non-grocery) online stores. A particular store might seem to be the right kind, but you really never know with a website: the size of a real-world store can clue you in to its credibility, but you have no such indicators online (even the cheapest and least reliable retailer can have a decent website, after all).
Secondly, when someone has made it to a physical store, they’re somewhat committed to it. They could leave and go elsewhere, but it would probably take longer to reach an alternative than it would to just accept the layout and fully traverse that store. There’s no such practical consideration to be made online, because all stores are similarly accessible. Anyone who can’t find what they’re looking for (or is frustrated by a slow-loading website) can leave immediately and find it on another site.
That said, there’s one offshoot of the psychological approach to layout design that does work well in the online world, and that’s the positioning of impulse buys at checkouts. While standing in line to pay for something, a shopper’s mind will wander, and they’ll start to think about what they might have missed or forgotten to buy. They might worry about leaving without everything, not wanting to come back later and go through it all again.
As this contemplation is happening, their willpower will be ebbing away. Shoppers often steel their resolve as they go through stores, determined to avoid wasting money on unnecessary buys (or items that are bad for them, like cigarettes or items of junk food), but that resolve doesn’t last — and it starts to dwindle at the checkout phase when it feels as through the experience is over. That’s why many stores still display a lot of chocolate bars at their checkouts: they know that people will lazily pick some up without even thinking about it.
Online, there’s a lot of value in listing possible impulse buys during the ecommerce checkout process. Instead of candy bars, they should be relatively low-cost items that catch the eye and fit with the item (or items) already being purchased. Accessories work exceptionally well for this. Someone buying a smartphone, for example, might not think twice about throwing in a case, a spare charger, a screen protector, and a dock.
Product Presentation is Immensely Important
Some sellers get the impression that offering products online means you get to skip all the theatrics of worrying about how they look and can simply present technical information. Product name, product type, brand name, functions, batteries required, compatible devices, etc. Imagine the barest of eBay listings, perhaps for a simple electrical component — no photo, just data. This impression shows a woeful lack of awareness, as presentation is just as important online.
When I say it’s just as important, that’s an aggregate comparison, because it’s less important in some ways and more important in others. It’s less important in the sense that there’s simply less room in an ecommerce design to dazzle someone with presentation elements. In a real store, you can use all the senses to good effect: in addition to making the place look good, you can pipe in alluring scents, play soothing music, offer food samples, and even make product packaging feel premium to lead people to value your products more highly.
Because of this, though, it’s also more important that you do everything you can with the sense available to you (sight, of course: you can use sound online, but people often have their sound disabled so it isn’t ideal). Make your product photos as glossy and high-quality as you can. Offer numerous angles so shoppers can inspect them properly. If you can, include relevant video content (e.g. product guides or showcases) and even rotatable 360-degree product views.
You should also work on your product copy, because that’s an underrated element of presentation and particularly potent when you’re offering a product that’s somewhat generic. Think about how luxury stores will make items of fruit that aren’t actually any better than those available elsewhere seem better by describing them in compelling ways. While you should have the aforementioned technical information available somewhere on the page (perhaps in a drop-down panel), you should prioritize the statement of benefits and appealing qualities.
Loyalty Programs are Vital for Retention
Before huge store chains began to price smaller businesses out of contention, it was possible for a store to get business based solely on geographical convenience. When you’re walking to get some groceries, you’re more likely to go to a store that’s a 10-minute walk away than you are to go to a cheaper store that’s a 25-minute walk away.
When shoppers started moving heavily to supermarkets, this changed, and the reason is simple: the difference between driving for 10 minutes to one supermarket and driving for 14 minutes to another isn’t very significant. Even if you scale up the distances to make the difference in journey time match the walking example we looked at, the fact that there’s no physical exertion involved means people will be willing to drive as far as needed.
Due to this, chains looked for ways to lock people in as customers regardless of what their competitors did, so they innovated loyalty schemes that allowed shoppers to save more money and get access to more interesting perks the longer they shopped with them. Though they could get convoluted at times, the complex reward schemes felt compelling.
This is something that ecommerce stores should all be doing. Simply having personalized marketing emails and referral bonuses isn’t enough. Find ways to reward people based on how much money they’ve spent through your store. Offer discounts on items they regularly purchase to encourage repeat buys. Consult long-time customers to get their input on the condition of your store: this will help you improve and make them feel more appreciated.
Let’s wrap up by briefly recapping everything the lessons we’ve picked out here.
- Firstly, introducing legitimate scarcity (even if artificial) is a tried-and-tested way to spur buys, so list stock at all times, bring in limited-edition products if you can, and try hybrid sales methods like selling through pop-up shops.
- Secondly, offering a smart low-cost selection of relevant items shortly before the point of purchase will likely pick up some additional buys without much effort.
- Thirdly, put maximum effort into polishing your product presentation. All you have to convince someone that an item is what they’re looking for is the combination of your words and your visuals, so make those things as good as you can.
- Fourthly, and lastly, introduce complex and absorbing loyalty programs to gamify as much of your store as possible. Shoppers really respond to this, getting into the habit of collecting as many points as they can (even if they don’t use them).
As you can glean, then, there’s a lot that modern sellers can learn from brick-and-mortar retailers. Sometimes you need to revisit classic techniques to find the way ahead, and that’s certainly the case here — especially with hybrid retail being the future.