If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the past few years, it’s that having an online strategy is necessary for a retailer to stay afloat. Retailers have generally responded well to the lockdowns and the changing consumer behavior that came with them. Some retailers are focusing on the hybrid shopping experience: an experience where the online experience seamlessly blends into the physical experience. Often by adding innovations in the physical store that bring the convenience of online into the store.

Consumers currently have a lot to choose from when it comes to ways to run errands or shop extensively. Online, offline or hybrid. Due to the lockdowns, even the most difficult consumers to move made the switch to the worldwide web. Research by Statistics Netherlands showed that the growth in e-commerce in 2021 was strongest among baby boomers. For some it was a convenience, for others a necessity. Either way, it changed the retail landscape forever. Consumers expect that the convenience of online shopping has also penetrated the physical store. Fortunately, the technological innovations that make this hybrid shopping experience seamless are increasingly available. I would like to highlight three for you.

1. Endless aisle

Online shops excel in providing insight into, for example, stock, available colors, sizes and brands. A physical store obviously has to do with a limited retail space. Retailers sometimes see a challenge in displaying as complete a range as possible in their store. The ‘endless aisle’ offers a good solution for this. It prevents customers from mistaking your store and seeking refuge in another physical store or web shop in order to still be able to obtain their beloved product.

It also offers a solution for shops with a premium location in the middle of a large city. Since the retail space there is often dramatically small and the square meters are very expensive, you can still offer your full range in a space that is limited. Customers can look up their desired product via an interactive kiosk in the store. The displays on the column provide information and at the same time atmospheric images as a kind of shop window to make the shopping experience seem as real as possible. The customer orders his product(s) and has them delivered at home. Hybrid shopping at its best.

2. The Virtual Shop Assistant

Just google a product or service. Compare that frying pan with other brands or look up which medical device helps best with an ailment: we quickly reach for our smartphone. Your customer does this too. Often this happens before the customer goes to the store, but often also while shopping. As with the above example about looking up stock, you also prefer to keep control yourself when providing product information. Adding a virtual store employee can be a solution here.

Retailers can deploy virtual store assistants in a variety of ways. For example, it can serve as an information column for questions about topics that people would rather not put to a sales employee. The option would also be offered to make a live connection with a specialist. Think of a medical specialist for questions about medical devices or a technical specialist for questions about a laptop. This specialist can be deployed for any location and, for example, have his permanent workplace at a (head) office.

A column could also serve as a product comparator. Such a column in a department store would, for example, be placed in the kitchen range to compare kitchen utensils. Which pan suits the customer best? After the customer has answered some questions about his kitchen, wishes and use, the customer is shown a number of options for pans from different brands and in different price ranges. Of course, the customer is sent to the right pan in the store or can have this pan delivered at home via the kiosk. That also saves carrying around bags while shopping.

3. The virtual fitting room with smart mirror

Consumers can still experience the most ‘physical’ omnichannel experience by means of a fitting room with a smart mirror. In this fitting room, the customer does not even have to touch the garments to see how it fits him or her. This seems futuristic, but in reality it has been around for several years.

Mastercard launched the smart mirror a few years ago that allows customers to customize their shopping experience in the fitting room. Even the light settings and music in the fitting room can be controlled by the customer. The labels in the clothing are provided with an RFID tag so that the mirror immediately recognizes the garments that have been taken into the fitting room. The mirror creates a digital shopping basket upon entry and recommends matching items from the collection, while the customer can view or request size and color variations and, if desired, contact a sales representative. Mastercard itself says about this that the time spent in the fitting room can be reduced by 40%. Mastercard has of course also added a virtual cash register in its own version of the smart mirror, where the customer only has to tap on the mirror with his payment card or device to complete the purchase.

Of course, there are different variants of smart mirrors. For example, only a connection with RFID is also possible. In this way, a customer does not even have to go to a fitting room and a smart mirror in the store is also sufficient. The customer takes an item with an RFID tag from the rack, holds it in front of the mirror, where the mirror shows all available sizes, colors, stock and matching items on the screen.

Image: Mastercard

The customer experience is central

At First Impression we are sure: the physical store will never disappear. In fact, the physical store is becoming an increasingly important link in the omnichannel strategy. It is the place to connect with the customer. Online shopping is about convenience. The physical store is about experience. The most ideal situation is a perfect mix between the two, in which the purchase process and the customer experience are central. The retailer must make the difference by offering a certain amount of experience and convenience. At the same time, the retailer must realize that its products are often not unique. It is the shopping experience that makes it unique.