Making stronger connections between digital and physical retail

Endless debates about online versus physical shopping and the demise of the store rage on. In the meantime, shoppers in the here-and-now still use both and expect them to join up.

We’re interested in how to make those connections stronger and started to explore examples to see what we can learn. During a pre-lockdown visit to Paris we looked at a digital-only brand’s first move into a dedicated store.

Veja’s foray into bricks and mortar delights in revealing those bricks and mortar - we just felt it could reveal more about its brand.

In a way, the boutique in the Marais district is a pure expression of sustainable retail. Rather than stick recycled stuff everywhere they’ve simply cleared the space, exposed some of the structure and given it a lick of paint here and there. This minimal intervention results in a pure, clean space that allows the product to shine.

From a creative approach we love it, and it’s an admirable environmental statement. But from a communication point of view, it feels like there is a disconnect between the online message and the in-store expression.

The story behind Veja is fascinating and complex. Visiting their website you get a real sense of commitment and purpose. Incredibly they claim not to spend anything on advertising. Their trainers cost 5-7 times more to produce due to strict sustainable sourcing, manufacture and logistics, but they’re able to price competitively through savings on marketing activity.

There is also fascinating stuff about using fish leather and the refreshing palms-open way they admit the limitations of what they can do.

All this rich material is likely to make a shopper connect more fully with the brand which is why we found the in-store reticence perplexing – stronger storytelling could easily be achieved without compromising the pared-down aesthetic.

Sure, they’ll have brand disciples who’ll make the pilgrimage but passing shoppers won’t get any of it. To us, it felt quite muted inside, missing the energy and passion that comes across through their digital presence.

A hesitant online shopper can easily discover more to satisfy their criteria and find what’s behind the product. In a physical space it takes more work so we should do as much as possible to make a connection more likely.

It’s certainly made us think more about the best ways for bridging the online-physical gap.

Here’s our starter-for-ten on a checklist of things that can help to bring these two worlds closer together...

1. Ask yourself why shoppers are in store and not online.

It could be as straightforward as their size not being available or concerns about online payments.

On the other hand, they might have reached the limits of what a digital experience can tell them - (“How does it look on me?” “What does it feel like?”).

Or, they could simply be browsing without any real intent. Something has caught their eye from outside the store, or a friend has mentioned it’s worth a look.

Either way it pays to drill down and explore all possible reasons. Armed with this you’re able to make more informed decisions about merchandising, design, communication and layout, optimising the store for the type of shoppers you expect.

2. Play on all the senses

We’ve heard rumours that Amazon are working on a way to get smell through digital devices. Until that happens the store holds an ace up its sleeve. Creating an enjoyable sensory experience needn’t be about expensive AV set ups. A few tweaks to the lighting here and there, a quality sound system and different flooring materials can transform an environment from something cold and transactional to a place that encourages dwell and browsing.

3. (Especially touch and feel)

We’ve all seen shoppers instinctively reach out and stroke an article of clothing or lift a smartphone up to see how it feels in their hand. Texture, weight and balance provide a visceral experience no picture can match.

Sometimes though you must give permission – tell shoppers it’s okay. Prompt them, invite them – anything you can do to make it happen. Unless you make it clear it’s okay there’s a chance they might not.

4. Consistency of visual codes

It’s often said that a website should obviously belong to a brand even if you removed the logo.

It’s true for stores too. The physical environment doesn’t have to follow the digital look-and-feel exactly (and the bonus is that you have more opportunities with three dimensions to play with). But it’s important the spirit or the essence of the brand comes across to avoid a disconnect in the mind of the shopper. We know the way shoppers browse on screen is different to how they browse a physical display but there’s no reason not to give the reassurance that comes from a consistent visual language.

5. Continuity of language and voice

A website’s language might be part of the reason a browser engaged with a brand. A lot of effort goes into website copy and this “digital voice” must work hard to express a brand’s unique personality.

So why throw it away in store? Even small touches on a shelf product description or instore signage can strengthen affinity with a brand.

6. Consistency of merchandising

Could you say a website is merchandised? We think so. It’s a different medium but it still needs to make sense of the offer through logical layout and clear categorisation.

The physical store can still play to its strengths and should reveal surprises now and again, but it makes sense from a navigation point of view to carry through the basics of structure and terminology used online.

7. Something digital?

Maybe. The thing to avoid is sticking an iPad in store with your home page on. They’ve already been there and done that so any digital content must give the shopper something extra that enhances the physical experience. Think about point 1 and why the shoppers have moved off digital to get here. If digital can add to the experience then great, but it should never be used for its own sake.

Many of these solutions won’t increase the budget. It’s more about thinking through things in a way that results in a positive difference to the shopper’s experience. We’d like to know what you think – what would be on your list?