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Retail Won't Disappear — It'll Become a Blended Experience

Tony Scherba
January 3, 2018

Most brick-and-mortar stores haven't changed their strategy since the early days of retail. Customers arrive at the store, make their selections, and (assuming the prices are right) check out with their products.

It's easy to see, then, why consumers jumped on a new shopping experience when the internet offered it. Without leaving the couch, shoppers can browse, compare, buy, and receive any product from around the world, often within 24 hours.

But as internet retailers have discovered, there's more to the story. For all its success, e-commerce can't replicate the in-store experience.

E-Retail Meets Real World

Slowly but surely, e-retail giants like Amazon are realizing that consumers still want to physically shop. There's nothing like trying on a pair of shoes at a store before making a decision. No high-definition videos or VR experience can replicate that experience — but it can help that same store attract customers.

That's why Amazon has bet big on tech-forward physical stores such as Amazon Go, the brand’s long-awaited grocery concept. At its sole location in Seattle, customers enter the store by scanning an app on their phones. Technology within the store then tracks when customers put items in their carts, and once shoppers are ready to go, all they have to do is walk out of the store. No checkout needed — purchases are automatically charged to shoppers' Amazon accounts.

Amazon foresaw that e-commerce would be big. It realized, too, that real-world retail is never going away; the in-store experience is simply ready for a renaissance. Using technology, retail stores can accentuate what they already do well: providing a strong shopping experience.

Build a Better In-Store Experience

Great shopping experiences can be built in all sorts of ways. But the following four strategies have proven particularly successful for forward-thinking retailers:

1. Make it memorable.

The internet doesn't always lead to thrilling experiences. Ordering those new sauce pans online might be convenient, but convenience is rarely memorable. A memorable experience keeps customers engaged at the store, and it also keeps them coming back for future shopping.

If I needed new basketball shoes, for example, I could buy them online in a few minutes. Or if I'm in New York, I can go to Nike Soho, pull on a pair of shoes, and shoot hoops in the Basketball Trial Zone, a half-court surrounded by high-definition screens. While I'm there, I can try out the other Trial Zones for soccer and running, each of which have a sleek, futuristic look. Which experience do you think I'll recall when I need another pair of shoes?

Unsurprisingly, 86 percent of shoppers say they enjoy “experience stores" like the one I just described. Of course, sportswear is a good fit for experiential concept stores. But the idea works in other industries, too. For instance, in Australia, Gillette had a difficult time convincing customers to buy anything better than the cheapest razors. When guys looked at the products on the shelf, they only saw prices. Gillette responded with an in-store VR experience that takes customers on a rollercoaster ride around a man's face while he shaves, showing exactly how its blades give such a clean shave.

2. Keep the screen, but ditch the app.

One of the biggest hassles of smartphone shopping is app management. No one likes downloading a store's app for an offer or experience only to delete it an hour later. Fortunately, physical stores can cut out that hassle with their own hardware.

In-store kiosks have the same (and, in some cases, more) capabilities as apps, but they don't require customers to download and delete stuff. Touch-screen way-finding kiosks, like the ones that have been built for Westfield, provide shoppers the directional information they need when they need it, making for a simpler, more engaging shopping experience.

Touch-screen kiosks can do more, however, than provide directions; they can actually boost sales. Restaurants like Chili's and Taco Bell report that people buy more food when there's a computer taking their order instead of a human. No matter how strong the customer service is, people still worry about being judged by others. Customers are more likely to order another drink or taco, a bigger pizza, or that product with the name they can't pronounce if they can tap that info into a screen rather than say it out loud.

3. Customize, customize, customize.

Whether in store or online, shopping for clothing can be a hassle. With so many variations in size and style, shoppers often get frustrated and settle for a less-than-perfect fit. Many try clothes on in the store before ultimately buying online.

Customized solutions, though, can give brick-and-mortar stores an advantage over online shops. Not only can shoppers avoid taking wild guesses at sizing like they would online, but they know they’ll find something that’s exactly what they’re looking for.

Alton Lane, for example, uses body scanners to create custom men’s suits fitted perfectly to each customer. But body scanning can be used for all types of clothing. In fact, U.K.-based Unmade uses 3D printers to produce knitwear on demand so shoppers can design and buy truly one-of-a-kind fashions. This can also benefit companies' bottom lines, as they don't need to worry about unsold inventory or wasted manufacturing dollars.

4. Sell like a machine.

The other day, I went to Best Buy to buy a simple flash drive. Fifteen minutes later, I was still standing in line. In this day and age, that's crazy. Next time I need a flash drive, I'm planning ahead and buying on Amazon.

Big retailers often sell thousand-dollar products that have financing and warranties along with items that cost only a few dollars. As a result, someone who just wants to buy a flash drive might have to wait in line behind someone buying a refrigerator. An easy solution is a vending machine. Small, commonly bought items could easily be dispensed for customers who just want to make a quick trip.

Vending machines bring the convenience and anonymity of online shopping into the real world. At the beach and left your sunscreen at home? Get it from The Sandbox, a vending machine that offers everything from sunglasses to water toys for the kids. Spent a night out on the town and your high heels are killing your feet? Stop by a Rollasole vending machine and snag a pair of flats for $20. Vending machines can also be more fun than buying online. For example, Snapchat fans lined up at the company's quirky yellow vending machines to buy their Spectacles.

We've seen plenty of content online claiming that the sky is falling on real-world retailers, but the apocalyptic predictions are overblown. There will always be a place for brick-and-mortar stores — especially ones that delight their customers with digital experiences. Even e-commerce companies like Amazon have realized that a blended approach is the future of retail.

Traditional retail stores have a leg up, however. Unlike Amazon, they've already got the infrastructure; all they need is to stock their space with digital innovations. To get started, reach out about prototyping the right in-store solution for your retail operation.

Tony Scherba is a CEO + Founding Partner at Yeti. Tony has been developing software since high school and has worked on digital products for global brands such as Google, MIT, Qualcomm, Hershey’s, Britney Spears and Harmon/Kardon. Tony’s writing about innovation and technology has been featured in Forbes, Huffington Post and Inc. At Yeti, Tony works on strategy, product design and day to day operations, hopping in and working with the development teams when needed. Follow Tony on Twitter.

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