Chapter 2: Stores Become Experience Differentiators

A 5 Part Series

In today’s age of digital shopping and convenience, brick-and-mortar stores are not merely surviving. Instead, they are evolving to deliver unique, experiential engagements that set them apart — from their competitors and even from their old selves.

In response to current shopping trends, modern retail spaces are transforming into experience differentiators, augmenting the customer journey with their tactile, immediate impact. By leveraging the strengths inherent in physical shopping, retailers are elevating customers’ in-store experience and rewriting the narrative of physical stores in the digital era.

Read on to learn how brick-and-mortar retailers are elevating physical shopping and what it means for shoppers and retailers, both now and in the future.

Why Retailers Still Need the Brick-and-Mortar Stores

Online shopping may be on the rise, but physical shopping is still pivotal when it comes to driving shopper engagement. Despite the easy convenience that digital channels offer, physical stores still win in terms of delivering an instant impact on consumers.

There are five main ways that physical shopping delivers instant impact, which in turn become the top five reasons why consumers continue to shop in-store and support the physical retail industry.

To Touch and Feel the Merchandise

Stores offer customers tactile experiences and immediate gratification, an advantage that digital platforms cannot fully replicate. Despite all the advancements in virtual or AI technology, it is still different when you can try on or even simply hold the merchandise in your own hands.

The sensory elements — like trying on clothes, feeling the fabric texture, or smelling the scent of a product — enrich the shopping experience, creating memorable engagements that foster customer loyalty.

To Get the Merchandise Immediately

The opportunity to take home purchases immediately eliminates the waiting period associated with online purchases. This is especially important for products that require urgent replacement, such as mobile phones.

Similarly, customers may be looking to purchase a gift item for an upcoming special occasion and need to get the product quickly. In these cases, physical retail spaces are more advantageous than online shopping channels due to their immediacy.

To Receive Immediate Assistance From Experienced Staff

Physical stores are able to offer personalized assistance and instant solutions to customer queries. These factors help foster significantly greater customer satisfaction and trust.

Moreover, they can provide shoppers with more personalized experiences. They typically have in-store sales associates to assist customers, answer questions and recommend alternatives, which is difficult to replicate in an online store without experiencing long wait times or delayed responses.

To Avoid Shipping Fees for Purchases

One of the most common downsides for online shopping are the shipping fees, which can be hefty enough to deter people from buying online. A physical store offers buyers the convenience of purchasing items without incurring additional shipping fees. This benefit could be especially attractive to price-sensitive shoppers, making in-store shopping a preferred option for them.

Additionally, shoppers can save on delivery time and eliminate the risk of goods being held back due to customs regulations or other logistical issues associated with online purchases.

To Take Advantage of In-Store Discounts and Special Offers

Shoppers can take advantage of in-store discounts and special offers that are otherwise not available online. These offers can include free product samples, “buy one, get one” offers, or discounted items exclusive to the physical store.

High-value in-store experiences and offers — like beauty makeovers that showcase the products — further encourages visits. These incentives help draw more customers into the store and provide them with greater value for their money.

To Enjoy the Shopping Experience

Shopping in-store gives customers the opportunity to enjoy the shopping experience in a more tangible way. This opportunity goes beyond feeling and touching the product, trying on clothes or accessories, or discussing their options with an expert who can provide personalized advice. This factor is where stores becoming experience differentiators come into play.

Understanding Experience Differentiators

Experience differentiators fundamentally revolve around creating an immersive and engaging environment that goes beyond the simple act of purchasing. They transform shopping into an event filled with sensory appeal, personalized service, and unique interactions that cannot be replicated online.

Brick-and-mortar retailers are quickly recognizing the potential of becoming experience differentiators and are swiftly adapting their strategies to incorporate new strategies into their physical stores. They are investing in experiential retail, intertwining technology with their physical environment to create a harmonious blend of digital convenience and tangible, sensory-rich, and unique experiences.

By doing so, they can earn, re-earn, and strengthen customer loyalty in the age of online shopping.

These stores are becoming more than a place to purchase goods; they are turning into social hubs, education centers, and even entertainment venues. In essence, stores are no longer purely transactional spaces — they are transforming into something much more in the pursuit of excellent customer service and a differentiated customer experience from online shopping.

Adapt or Perish: Retailers’ Response to New Online Shopping Trends

In response to the rapidly evolving e-commerce sector and its effects on the shopping landscape in general, retailers are rapidly redefining the in-store experience to cater to the digital age and the new type of consumers. Perhaps the biggest way they are doing so is by strategically integrating technology into their physical stores to enhance customer experience, drive customer engagement, and optimize store functions.

One prominent trend is the use of augmented reality (AR), which allows customers to virtually try on clothes and accessories, bridging the gap between the digital and tangible world. Retailers are also leveraging data analytics to gain insights into shopping habits and preferences, enabling them to offer personalized shopping experiences and create loyal customers.

Other strategies go beyond integrating technology and focus more on transforming the in-store experience. Salesforce survey findings show that 51% of retailers currently have space for in-store events, while 40% plan to do so in the near future. Meanwhile, half of respondents have implemented high-tech fitting rooms and interactive displays, using augmented reality for virtual try-ons that let retailers elevate store experiences.

Other ways retailers are creating a memorable customer experience include in-store workshops, virtual stylists, and appointment scheduling. All of these tactics are just a few common examples of how physical retail stores are adapting in the digital age.

In addition, the rise of “click and collect” services or curbside pickup are an appealing offer to consumers hoping to avoid shipping fees, as well as meet the customers’ desire for immediate product acquisition. Department stores and stand-alone shops are changing their role in the flow of fulfillment.

This fusion of digital convenience and physical experience underlines brick-and-mortar stores’ role in becoming customer experience differentiators and redefining their place in the customer journey.

The Expanding Responsibilities of Store Associates

The change in roles of stores naturally brings changes to the responsibilities of store sales associates. After all, the changing retail industry landscape brings new customer expectations — ones that sales associates will need to adapt to.

One of the biggest changes in consumer shopping habits is the near-constant presence of consumers online and their consistent use of digital channels. As a response, stores are also turning to mobile devices or digital tools to further meet the needs and wants of their consumer.

Equipping store associates with mobile devices is quickly becoming a priority for retailers, primarily due to its potential to enhance the in-store experience. In fact, almost 32% of in-store employees now use a mobile device on the job, with the numbers expected to rise up to 41% in the next three years.

Mobile devices can facilitate quicker checkouts, eliminating one of the major pain points in physical retail: long waiting times at the billing counters.

However, most retail sales associates today spend 74% of their time on activities not related to checking out purchases. Sales associates use mobile devices more for providing customer service and better brand experience for customers. Survey results show that 51% of associates use their mobile devices to help customers with loyalty program sign-ups. In comparison, only 44% use their devices for point-of-sale tasks.

Mobile devices serve as a powerful tool in the hands of sales associates, allowing real-time access to inventory, product information, and purchase histories, with 39% of associates saying they use their devices for tasks related to store operations and execution.

As such, mobile devices empower them to provide personalized service to shoppers, fostering a sense of appreciation and enhancing consumer loyalty. Below are five of the top additional responsibilities that sales associates do today.

Digital Customer Service

Store sales associates are increasingly expected to provide customer service via text chat, phone calls, or video calls. By leveraging digital tools and platforms, they can address customer inquiries instantly, resolve issues more efficiently, and even offer personalized product recommendations based on customer preferences.

Social Influencer

Associates also take on more social media management roles, posting about products or special offers on official store accounts — essentially becoming social influencers for the store or brand.

Virtual Stylist

Store associates are also stepping into the role of virtual stylists, offering style advice and product recommendations through virtual consultations. Meeting individual customers for virtual styling appointments enhances the shopping experience, encourages in-store visits, and fosters a deeper connection between the customer and the store.

Last-Mile Delivery

Curbside or in-store pickups allow customers who shop online to pick up their orders at the brick-and-mortar outlet. This service provides a personalized and seamless shopping experience. By controlling this crucial aspect of the customer journey, associates are able to ensure that the product reaches the consumer on time and in perfect condition, elevating customer satisfaction.

Online Order Management

With the increase in online shopping and the merging of online retailers and physical shops, in-store associates are also taking on online order management responsibilities. These duties may involve tasks like ensuring orders are accurate and packaging items for delivery or pickup.

Physical Stores as Fulfillment Centers in the Digital Age

Stores are also offering high-value and personalized experiences by doubly serving as fulfillment centers for their online shopping side. Recent data highlights how allowing customers to leverage these convenient fulfillment options is helping drive in-store customer engagement.

For instance, 57% of shoppers purchased a product online to pick up in-store, while 40% had purchased a product online to ship to the store. Also, 49% of surveyed shoppers had bought a product to be shipped from the store.

There is also the case of consumers using stores as fulfillment centers for online returns processing, with 53% of shoppers saying they visited a store to return a product.

These statistics highlight the emergence of stores as fulfillment centers. The number of shoppers returning a product in-store has seen a remarkable increase of 13% since 2021, which further indicates this shift in consumer retail habits.

Retailers’ Plans for Expanding In-Store Fulfillment

Stores that recognize the changing consumer-retailer dynamics are quick to respond as they make such tasks easier to do. Just this year, 64% of retailers have started offering in-store returns for online purchases. Meanwhile, 58% have implemented the “buy online, pick up in-store” option.

In addition to those, retailers are also expanding their in-store fulfillment services or planning to do so in other ways. The most notable strategies retailers are exploring are:

  • Shipping online orders from the store
  • Same-day delivery from physical stores via third-party delivery services
  • Same-day delivery from store via in-house or own drivers
  • Buy-online-pickup-curbside

According to Salesforce’s data, more than half of retailers are already offering all four of the above. Moreover, a large number of retailers who have yet to offer such services currently have plans to do so in the near future.

These measures have positioned physical stores as critical nodes in the retail supply chain and significantly enhanced consumers’ in-store experience. They have brought about a fusion of the digital and physical retail worlds, providing shoppers with the convenience of online shopping and the tangibility of physical stores.

The Bottom Line

As the digital age continues to reshape the retail landscape, stores will increasingly become more than mere points of sale. This point is evident in their evolution into experience differentiators — offering a blend of digital convenience and tangible, in-person engagement.

Retailers are increasingly leveraging in-store fulfillment options to enhance the customer experience and foster customer loyalty. As a result, they’re creating a hybrid retail model where online and offline channels coexist and even complement each other.

Looking ahead, it is safe to say that physical retailers will remain a strong force in the shopping industry, able to differentiate themselves against the convenience of online shopping. Retailers that will thrive in this environment are those who continue to innovate and adapt, constantly seeking new ways to elevate the in-store experience, drive customer engagement, and meet the ever-changing demands of the connected shopper.

The future of retail lies at the intersection of technology and in-store experience, and we can expect more exciting developments in this space as the digital shopping age continues to evolve.

Visit the Salesforce site for more information about their 2023 Connected Shoppers’ Report

For any questions or assistance with marketing your business, reach out to PERC Digital Marketing. Let our team help your business adapt to the industry’s fast-changing trends. Contact us today

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Xavier Berkness

Xavier Berkness is the President of PERC, a renowned Digital Marketing Company. With an impressive career spanning over two decades since 1996, Xavier has earned a reputation as a leader in the field of digital marketing. He has leveraged his deep understanding and expertise in building websites to author a highly-regarded book, 'Mastering On-Page Optimization - The Secret Sauce of an SEO System.' Xavier's impactful contributions to the industry have been recognized in a Star Tribune feature, where he was hailed as a 'Mover and Shaker.' Outside the professional realm, Xavier is a nature lover who cherishes time spent near the ocean. He continues to fuel his passion for digital marketing, relentlessly seeking new knowledge and strategies every day. His combination of professional prowess and personal charm make Xavier a trusted authority in the digital marketing industry.