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E-Commerce Defines Brick & Mortar Shopping Experience

By Joshua Williams

31 Mar 2021

In this episode, Driven By Digital, we explore the ways in which online shopping has changed how we shop in person.

The pandemic accelerated e-commerce sales in 2020. Pre-Covid, e-commerce sales accounted from between 10 to 20% for fashion retailers, depending on the sophistication and reach of their online platforms. At the height of Covid, these numbers doubled to 40% and beyond, and have now averaged out around 26% with the roll-out of vaccines and the ability for people to move around in public more freely. These numbers are indeed impressive and underscore a true customer shift towards buying a wide range of products online—from groceries to furniture to clothing. And companies like Amazon, Target and Walmart, that offer a wide range of products all in one place, have led the pack.

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However, what’s particularly fascinating about these numbers is that even at the height of the pandemic, 60% or more of sales were still transacted in a brick and mortar store. And instead of online sales holding at 40%, they have decreased, suggesting that in-person shopping still holds sway among customers. While customers appreciate the utility and perceived ease of shopping online, shopping is not just about the purchase itself, especially when it comes to buying fashion—which is often less about the piece we’re buying and more about the experience of finding something, trying it on and buying it.

However, this is not to suggest that in-store versus online is an even comparison. The reality is much more complex and harder to truly track. Many experts estimate that 65% or more of in-store purchases involve a digital component—meaning customers are engaging online first, whether it’s searching for the perfect dress or trousers, finding a store location, or even purchasing online—before, they head to the store to pick up an item. Or, the customer is online while shopping in a store; they might be listening to music, getting style advice from a friend via FaceTime, or even shopping a competitor.

What’s more, the primary way in which customers interact with brands now—on a daily basis—is online. This interaction starts first thing in the morning, when a customer picks up their phone, checks their emails, and scrolls through Instagram. This mostly 2D brand experience, often on a small screen, is the most common way customers interact with a brand. And they are doing so from their personal space, rather than in a fully branded space like a store, where the brand is in control. In other words, while customers might still prefer shopping and engaging with brands in a physical store, digital is defining and driving the overall experience.

This reality requires a major shift from retailer leaders, where most decisions about online shopping have been based on traditional, brick and mortar store models; where online was seen more as an “add-on” than the driving force behind customer purchase behaviors. And it necessitates a realization that the interaction between the brand and the customer is fundamentally different and difficult to maintain. After all, the start of a customer journey probably begins with a Google search or a request to Alexa. Ultimately, this shift to a digitally-led business also requires a new type of employee skillset, that merges technology and data know-how with traditional roles in merchandising, buying, planning, logistics and management. And it requires agility and flexibility in order to stay competitive, beyond seasonal trends.