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In-store vs. Online shopping: Are brands at risk of losing the connection with customers?
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Shopping has always been a sensory experience: The brush of the fabric, the aroma of the store and the buzz of the people all stimulate the senses. In the constant human pursuit to make things more convenient and accessible in our busy lives, the shopping experience is starting to lose its touch. Is the new ‘avenue’ of shopping online causing brands to lose existing and potential connections with customers?

Let us take a look at how the online experience is affecting a brand's ability to create and sustain meaningful connections:

The shopper loses the ability to fully experience a brand online:

Sensory engagement is key in establishing an emotional connection with a brand, especially when it comes to products that offer a tangible experience.

Independent retailing:

We have recently seen the rise in popularity of independent online retailers in South Africa. The relationship between the brand, the retailer and the shopper is being challenged.

The challenge to brands which are being sold through independent retailers, whether online or direct, is that the shopper is building the connection with the retailing site. This trend is also giving these retailers the advantage of being able to profile their shoppers and shopping trends and use this data to their advantage and allow them to actively market relevant products or events. Brand owners are losing out on this knowledge or advantage and their equity is being transferred to the 'channel' brand. Brands such as Kalahari and Zando are examples of online retailers who are offering a great service to consumers, and at the same time developing the relationship with the consumer instead of the brands they sell.

Couch surfing vs. shopping mall frenzy:

With delivery and payment methods that allow for the shopper to purchase from the comfort of their home or office, and delivery to their door, consumers are not having to contend with crowds in shopping malls anymore. Brands should be encouraging shoppers to make this trip a unique and memorable experience - one that delights. Herein lays the opportunity for brands to be creative. For example, in the US, there is a mobile application called 'Shopkick' which rewards customers with points and products simply by walking into the store - a great way to get people into your store and experience your brand.

Breaking the habit:

Online shopping makes habitual purchases easy, but this now creates a challenge for brands that are not in the shoppers consideration set. Getting a shopper to change their habitual purchases online will be tricky and will require using innovative persuasion tactics to engage with shoppers in the online world. If the shopper isn't going to you, go to the shopper. Social networks can be used to make an impact on habitual shopping patterns; viral campaigns and targeted online advertising are examples of how to grab a consumer's attention and place you in their consideration set.

Do you like it?

Shopping has traditionally been a social experience and by moving the shopping experience online, it has lost its social 'appeal'. Brands have started to use social networks to display catalogues in an attempt to keep the social aspect alive. These networks have allowed shoppers to browse, share opinions and start conversations online about their favourite brands. Not only has shopping become easier, but socialising too can take place from the comfort of your couch.

Although online shopping serves some shoppers best in today's busy world, this is impacting on brand equity as the emotional connection between brand and customer is lost through the online world. It is not a case of online versus in-store anymore, but one where we need to use both platforms together to create an advantage.

The following are ways of how the two can co-exist:

  1. In order for brands to use the online platform successfully it goes without saying that a brand must offer online shopping as a feature of its offering. With the rise in online shopping activity, if consumers cannot connect or buy or browse your products online, they will search for a more convenient alternative. The option of shopping and browsing online is critical in sustaining relationships with your shoppers - or at the least a product catalogue with product codes and prices is now a non-negotiable.
  2. What is being offered online and in-store needs to be different and unique. This will incentivise the consumer to choose either route based on the uniqueness of each medium. This also shows that the brand has carefully thought about the shopper experience both online and in-store.
  3. Tangible experiences - product or store experience - cannot be experienced online so unique interactive experiences can be used on the online platform. Brands can leverage the perks of online engagement that will have the shopper looking forward to the in-store experience. By making use of these interactive experiences online, we can establish and build connections with customers.  
  4. With the online platform being more flexible to rapid changes, this can allow the brand to stay on top of trends and maintain a relevant real time connection. Thoughts, trends and information can easily be conveyed to the shopper, and spread messages as to why shoppers should buy your brand.
  5. A brand's website should be the teaser of what is going to take place in the store. If all goods are displayed on the website, this leaves little to the imagination. You want your customer to be curious as to what is different in-store and drive the in-store experience. This gives the consumer an incentive to check out your store.

In a real world relationship, physical and face-to-face interaction is important in sustaining a meaningful connection, whereas the online world simply makes it possible for us to connect over distance. The same should apply for brands that still want to sustain or create meaningful connections with their shoppers. Although the world is moving towards a 'virtual society', brands can use this opportunity to bring back the human element of shopping, supported by the online world. By excelling at both the in-store and online platforms, brands can create a seamless shopper experience that meets shoppers' needs, resulting in building brand loyalty in the long term.


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