Merging digital and physical: what consumers want from retail

Having to decide whether to do shopping online or in a physical store can be hard and often requires an unpleasant trade-off. Think about a common scenario: it’s a rainy day; you feel like buying something nice to wear but can’t be bothered to go out after a long working day.  So you go on the website of your favourite shop and see this wonderful pair of shoes. Yes, it is exactly what you need; so you start looking at the description but suddenly realize that you’re not sure about the size. And…is the colour of that picture the actual colour of the shoes?

Both the online and offline environments have positive and negative sides and you  probably have dreamed at least once in life to merge the benefits of the two in a world with no boundaries between the physical and digital space.


This could be a great opportunity, if we consider that in a study conducted by Accenture last March, 40% of respondents felt like retailers need to improve the shopping experience in their store.

It’s exciting to think about which elements would be amazing to bring from the offline world to the online and vice versa.

Imagine if you could touch the texture of a leather jacket or smell a fragrance on a website. This would probably represent the best achievement in the online environment. Or think about how wonderful would be to try on a dress or a pair of shoes online to see exactly how the item look like on you, which is often different from how it appears on a model. If interacting with the product in these terms is still quite demanding to achieve, other features normally belonging to shopping in a store are becoming frequent online too. For example, you can get advice from your closest friends or help from a personal shopper, through social media sharing, email and live chat integration on a brand website. In fact, personal help now constitutes an important piece of the online experience since retailers are aware of its potential as a persuading tool and driver to higher sales compared to an impersonal website.

From an offline perspective, it is a fun experience to get relevant  recommendations basing on what you browsed in store, similar to what a website can provide. Read other customers’ reviews would be helpful, as much as having a record of the items you looked at or tried on but not bought, saving you a lot of time on your next purchase. In addition to this, it would be exciting to buy items from other store in case what you want is out of stock, or know what is exclusive and popular among celebrities. Furthermore, we all know that waiting times in the check-out line represents one of the least favourite aspects of in-store shopping. That could be easily avoided by transposing online techniques to the offline world.

Since an IBM survey has revealed that price consistency, the ability to ship items that are out of stock in-store directly to their home, the option to track the status of an order, consistent product assortment and the ability to return online purchases in-store are the top five attributes appreciated by customers, it’s easy to understand that what people want from retailers is a great integration across shopping channels.

Thanks to the emergence of increasingly pervasive technologies, many of the spatio-temporal barriers that traditionally define the shopping experience have been demolished. This insinuates that merging digital and physical is not just an unreachable dream, but a close and feasible reality that brands must take into consideration.