To make shopping IRL as addictive as online shopping, retailers should use these digital sales tricks

Injecting some energy back into the brick-and-mortar experience.
Injecting some energy back into the brick-and-mortar experience.
Image: AP Photo/Julie Jacobson
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Consumers are bringing their online expectations to the physical world. When ordering coffee, many of us now enjoy the online convenience of a mobile app for payments, ordering, and loyalty— and we’ll soon see personalization features like pairing suggestions as well as delivery options. When working out, we haven’t just embraced wearable technology; we’ve come to expect real-time analytics to measure our performance and progress. And on the road, we’d be lost without mapping apps.

But what do our evolving expectations of online features in the physical world mean for brick and mortar retailers, many of which have struggled to keep up in the face of the rise of e-commerce?

Eliminate the checkout line

You may love the store, but you almost certainly hate the checkout line—and if you put aside the obvious need to collect payment, the line doesn’t do much for the store, either. To start with, it forces some employees to work at the registers instead of engaging with customers on the floor. At the same time, customers who are asked to wait in long lines “check out” in the virtual sense, too. (The next time you’re in line, leave your phone in your pocket and count how many customers are glued to their screens.) Retailers have been using technology to wage war on long lines, but now the question is whether retailers can do away with the line altogether.

Amazon Go, Amazon’s convenience store concept, is experimenting with this principle. Their answer is to replace the line with a real-world version of the online shopping cart. There are no checkout lines in Amazon Go because every item in the store is coded for easy purchase: The customer scans their phone upon entry, picks their items, and leaves. The checkout has fewer steps (and less typing and clicking) than the online equivalent, and customers still  get the instant gratification of walking away with their purchase—an effective counterweight to the convenience of free shipping.

On the one hand, this all sounds like space-age stuff. Sure, it’s cool, but is it really possible for the mainstream market? After all, the technology exists for Amazon to roll out concept stores, but will all of retail sacrifice the checkout line on the altar of customer satisfaction? The answer hinges on consumer expectations, rather than the commitment of an innovator. Give Amazon Go credit for innovation, but pay close attention to how those innovations change customer expectations.

Make the store as searchable as your website

Is there anything more frustrating than roaming the aisles of a store looking for a specific item? Wandering the aisles has long been a source of consumer frustration that the best retailers have historically combatted through ample floor staffing. But let’s face it: Many retailers don’t have the budget to keep enough employees on the floor at all times, and even if they could, no human can memorize the exact locations of thousands of SKUs (stock keeping units).

Consumers have long accepted this reality, but when weighed against the simple experience of online searches, the disconnect between the digital and the physical experience becomes even more frustrating. In one recent study that chronicled the dramatic shift to online shopping, the ease of search ranked alongside free shipping and price as one of the key reasons why a majority of Americans now look to websites for their purchases.

But don’t give up on brick-and-mortar stores yet. In fact, when you consider three factors—smartphone ownership, increased precision in radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology, and the proliferation of real-time mapping apps like Waze—you can imagine a more searchable physical shopping experience. Rather than flagging down an employee to locate an item, consumers could simply ask their phone to locate it, either through typing or voice command. The store need only provide a user-friendly mobile map and tag each SKU with precise location data; stores could be transformed into a physical space that is as searchable as a website and as navigateable as Google Maps.

Compete with customer service

Whether it’s online or in-store, customer service is tricky. Take one recent study that found that one in three retailers don’t respond to customer-service requests via email. That fact may explain part of the swelling interest in customer-service bots—but if and when those bots are unable to address a customer’s issue, automated responses will likely only exacerbate the problem.

But let’s backtrack for a second and ask a more basic question: What is the point of customer service?

Whether we access customer service online or in person, we turn to customer service because we need assistance. Even in an increasingly automated world, customer service is about helping us when bots and scripts prove either unhelpful or incapable of addressing our specific needs. In short, when we talk about customer service, the word to emphasize is service, which remains a largely human undertaking. So how do retailers empower their employees to provide better customer service?

Writing in The Harvard Business Review, Jochen Wirtz and Ron Kaufman offer some surprising insights. Their suggestions include beefing up support for consumer-facing employees and abandoning scripts, instead focusing on the meaning of excellence in customer service. Wirtz and Kaufman believe the best customer service comes from well-trained employees who have both the freedom to help and the support they need to make that help meaningful.

This idea is applicable across all consumer-facing businesses, but it should be of particular interest to retailers. When you press a help button online, the odds are good you’ll encounter a bot; when you ask for help in a store, you’re most certainly asking a human.

This isn’t to suggest that the future of retail won’t involve whiz-bang technology, like autonomous in-store robots and smart mirrors. Those tools probably are coming to a store near you, but they aren’t the same as service. In the same way that social media changed our expectations of the internet as a people-driven medium, retail staff, aided by technology, will also define brick and mortar 2.0.