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The brick and mortar arms race has begun. Who will come out on top?

Illustration of a person outside a building browing a clothing rack.

This is an excerpt from Ryder Ecommerce By Whiplash’s latest ebook “The brick and mortar arms race: Omnichannel expectations that are shaping the storefront.”

Inside the arms race to level up the storefront

Physical retail suffered a major setback during the COVID-19 pandemic. But as consumers return to the storefront, an arms race has begun. Brands must be ready to provide a digitally led store experience—or risk becoming irrelevant. 

2020 can easily be referred to as ‘the year of e-commerce.’ Stay-at-home orders drove an explosion in online shopping activity, with e-commerce sustaining an additional 41% sales growth across 2020 and 2021.

Yet the ubiquity of digital has drawn attention to the shortcomings of online-only retail. The simple pleasures of browsing attractive displays or leaving with a purchase in hand have been keenly missed by consumers. This is why in 2022, we are seeing brick and mortar undergo something of a renaissance. 

Despite doomsday predictions of a ‘retail apocalypse,’ storefronts continue to account for the vast majority of retail sales in the United States, while store openings during 2021 were double the number of closing announcements. E-commerce growth has also slowed considerably since its peak in 2020, with e-commerce sales in 2022 forecast to achieve the smallest growth rate since 2009.

But this resurgence doesn’t mean a return to the brick and mortar environment of 2019 and before. After two years of navigating the complexities of supply chain disruption and newfound omnichannel capabilities, today’s consumers are bringing an entirely new set of expectations to in-store and e-commerce shopping experiences.

Brands need to recognize that consumers no longer perceive retail as either digital shopping or physical storefronts; it’s just retail. They want the best of both worlds—all at the same time.

The weaknesses of pure-play e-commerce

High shipping costs. The growing demand for faster home delivery is putting a squeeze on merchants, who often pass these costs onto their customers.

Less immersive brand experiences. The lack of tangible touchpoints in Online-only retail can make the shopping experience feel impersonal and detached. 

Growing customer acquisition costs. As e-commerce grows more competitive, D2C brands are finding it harder to secure customers and build lasting brand loyalty.

Loss of instant gratification. The lag between paying for a product online and getting it delivered means that customers are often left without direction. 

Lack of organic product discovery opportunities. The use of search engines and keywords to drive browsing means customers are unlikely to spontaneously discover products and brands.

Wanted: A better in-store shopping experience 

Physical storefronts and e-commerce selling have traditionally operated as parallel retail journeys, running along separate tracks that never intersect. But as consumers return to in-person shopping informed by their experiences of pandemic retailing, brands need to meet evolving expectations for convenience and flexibility-—and it all starts with the right technology.

The perfect offline experience starts online

Superior in-person shopping experiences are no longer confined to the storefront. After years of public health restrictions, consumers embraced the necessity of cross-channel experiences enabled by digital connectivity. 

Where shoppers once started their journey by visiting a store and browsing the shelves, they now have far more tools at their disposal. Social media platforms have become the leading brand and product discovery engine for Millennials and Gen Z, outstripping even Google. E-commerce websites now allow consumers to ask questions via live chat with customer service representatives, and even to check product availability at the nearest store location, all before they’ve even set foot inside a store. 

In sum, brick and mortar retailers can no longer ignore the pivotal role that e-commerce plays in meeting customers in their preferred channel and priming them for high-intent store visits. This is known as ‘bricks and clicks’ and it holds the key to strengthening your in-store experience.

However, bricks and clicks can only be unlocked by investing in technology solutions that break down the silos between your storefront, digital channels, and the warehouse. We’re going to explore how three omnichannel software solutions are enabling retailers to take control of their retail operations and unify shopping channels for a seamless customer experience (CX).

The power of bricks and clicks 

Bricks and clicks reflects the growing desire of consumers to blur the boundaries between retail and e-commerce. According to Shopify’s Future of Retail report for 2022, 54% of consumers say they’re likely to look at a product online and visit a store location, while 53% are likely to look at a product in-store and buy it online later. 

Capturing the essence of brick and clicks

We’ve explored the backend capabilities required to level up your digital and physical storefronts. So, how can brands use this technology to enable fluid retail journeys that prioritize convenience, personalization, and memorable experiences?

As the world recovers from the pandemic, retail stands at a crossroads; consumers want both the accessibility of e-commerce and the immediacy of brick and mortar. This can take a variety of forms, from cross-channel return policies to at-home try-on programs—and even how your goods are packaged for BOPIS and home delivery.

But putting bricks and clicks into practice requires a complete rewiring of how we conceptualize the storefront. Brands must be ready to meet customers at every point in their shopping journey, providing them with the right information and the right tools to satisfy their specific needs. 

Perhaps it’s an omnichannel return portal that enables customers to kickstart their return process in every channel. Or custom packaging that allows online shoppers to connect seamlessly with product instructions, review sites, and more. 

Let’s dive into what these seamless hybrid retail experiences can look like in practice, and how the rise of third-party omnichannel retail services is helping brands transform the storefront-—one customer at a time.

A tale of three storefronts 

Brick and mortar retailers have responded to changing shopping behaviors by embracing different aspects of the omnichannel experience:

Storefront as distribution: Store locations as the touchpoint for bricks and clicks activities such as BOPIS, in-store returns, and local e-commerce delivery.

Storefront as experiential: Store locations as immersive spaces dedicated to brand storytelling and in-store activations, supported by online channels to foster brand awareness.

Storefront as the nexus: Store locations that combine clicks and bricks services and experience-led design to educate and prime customers for purchases across channels.

The brick and mortar arms race has begun: Who will come out on top?

The message is clear: as in-person shopping takes off once more in the aftermath of the acute phase of the pandemic, brands can no longer neglect the power of the storefront. Finding success in this new era of retail means moving beyond the idea of digital and physical shopping channels serving different purposes within the customer journey. 

After the challenging years of pandemic retail, shoppers have become very sensitive to signs that brands aren’t putting convenience at the heart of their omnichannel strategy. To your customer, the bricks and the clicks are simply different faces of your brand. Your always-online shopper may prefer to return in-store to receive a faster refund or find a replacement item, while those who buy in-store don’t see why they shouldn’t get to enjoy beautiful packaging or free samples at the point of sale. 

Remember: Within the complex ecosystem that is your brand, consumers see themselves right at the center.

Implementing best-in-class technology solutions that achieve inventory visibility and operational flexibility is the first step to putting in place those value-added bricks and clicks services that enhance CX and brand loyalty. Tools as such EDI and ROS provide a strong foundation for real-time insights into your operation and gaining control over every touchpoint in the shopping journey.

E-commerce and brick and mortar are continuing to evolve toward a single storefront, and brands need to think strategically about other ways they can use e-commerce technology to augment the in-store experience with digital connectivity. 

As your customers grow accustomed to seamless shopping journeys and meaningful brand experiences, you can feel confident that your business will emerge from the arms race victorious.

Enjoyed this extract? Check out the rest of our eBook on how the COVID-19 pandemic has shaped consumer expectations for fluid retail journeys:

The brick and mortar arms race: omnichannel expectations that are shaping the storefront.
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