The history of retail goes back pretty far: from London’s first department store opening in 1796, to the rise of big box retailers in the 1960s, to Amazon and eBay launching in 1995. In today’s modern age, almost two billion people buy products online. When the internet emerged—and subsequently, social media—traditional retailers were forced to ditch solely in-store concepts that once made them successful, and adopt more modern, digital strategies that put them in front of their target audiences.
While the concept of online retail posed an initial threat to brick and mortar, it lacked key in-store benefits, like the ability to try on clothes for fit or the ability to wear an accessory the same day it was purchased, but it still caused a vast amount of store closures as e-commerce came to be known as the future of retail.
Fast forward to now, online and offline experiences are no longer either-or when it comes to retail strategies, and we can tie that directly to evolving consumer preferences and innovative technologies that merge the two concepts. While Gen Z and Millennials grew up with the rise of the internet, research shows that both demographics aren’t interested in being 100 percent digital and still crave the experiences that come with shopping in a physical store. Now, retailers are adopting more elastic strategies that keep up with the evolving shopping habits and preferences to give consumers the best of both worlds.
More recent trends like buy online, pick up in store (BOPIS), cashierless retail, same-day delivery, and more, now allow shopping traffic to move both ways – offline to online and vice versa. Technologies, particularly those powered by artificial intelligence—connected fitting rooms, AR-enabled mobile apps that allow users to try on products via their smartphone, chatbots and digital assistants, etc. —all play a major role in merging the two shopping experiences through their ability to both process data and drive more interactive experiences.
Alibaba and Guess, a more recent partnership that merges human fashion expertise with computer vision technology, created smart racks and next-generation fitting rooms. A shopper can log into a store using a mobile app, browse, and then view a nearby mirror presenting information based on what she takes off the rack. Customers can also use the touch interface to interact with the mirror to see different colors along with personalized mix-and-match options and accessories to complete the look, and where they could find the items in the store. The technology even includes the option to have consumers’ faces scanned in order to improve personalization, another aspect of the shopping experience that consumers have grown to expect.
In addition to these technologies that make the in-store shopping experience more digitally-savvy, other companies are looking to explore digital concepts that emulate the experience of browsing products in a physical store. Online marketplace Poshmark is today’s digital consignment shop that helps consumers combat fast-moving trends and expensive pieces “going out of style” by allowing direct consumer-to-consumer sales without physically bringing them into a store. DesignerShare enables a similar trend—user-generated inventory—but instead allows consumers to rent items in their closet to other consumers. Other companies’ business models like Stitch Fix, Amazon Prime Wardrobe, and Nordstrom Trunk Club operate with a “try before you buy” model and ship products directly to consumers’ doorsteps so they can try on the items before they commit to purchasing them.
Today’s shopping landscape is about preferences—anywhere, anything, any platform—so allocating budget towards either an online or offline strategy is no longer the smartest play as inspiration can occur at any point. Retailers that do not adopt efficient digital strategies lose out on the organic discovery and inspiration that occurs on channels like social media, but on the flip side, digitally native brands are increasingly seeing the importance of a brick-and-mortar presence as online sales can be challenging in the early stages when brand awareness is at its lowest. Pop-up stores are even far out of reach for many online retailers, causing brands like Bulletin to adopt WeWork-like models – companies of all categories sharing overhead costs and selling within one location. E-commerce companies like Rent the Runway and Bonobos, that once made brick and mortar seem obsolete, are even investing in physical storefronts. Amazon also bought into this trend when it purchased Whole Foods in 2017.
We no longer need to draw a line in the sand when it comes to online vs. offline, and instead, retailers need to focus on strategies that align directly with consumers’ preferences in order to deliver the benefits of both experiences. In fact, Gen Z is now widely recognized as the next consumer powerhouse, expected to account for 40 percent of all consumers by 2020. This means merging online and offline experiences to adapt to their preferences specifically will be a key factor in a retailer’s success. Overall, retailers and technology are together bridging the gap between what was once online versus offline, and we can expect that there will be new innovations on the horizon to further impact the entire shopping journey.
ViSenze, based in Singapore, is a provider of visual search technology.