How a Smart Digital Strategy Can Make the Physical Retail Store a Prime Asset

By Dave Richards, Accenture

In the early days of e-commerce, internet shopping was supposed to spell the demise of the physical store. Pure play online retailers would sweep all before them, rendering the retail store a historical curiosity. In fact, it hasn’t quite worked out like that. Recent Accenture research confirms that more shoppers are planning to increase their purchases from physical stores this year than last. However, the positive news for brick-and-mortar needs to be tempered with the realization that what shoppers want from the in-store experience is changing fast, shaped by their digital experiences. Retailers who fail to understand those new needs and adapt accordingly will struggle.

Two worlds collide

Rather than thinking about the store and online as discrete entities, retailers need to bring the two worlds much closer together. Consumers are looking for experiences that bring the best from digital and physical. For example, more consumers today are ‘webrooming’ (browsing online before making an in-store purchase) than ‘showrooming’ (going to a store to make their selection and then searching online for the best price) across a variety of retail categories. They also increasingly expect their purchases to be delivered for free, with more than half (57%) saying that waiting for free delivery was the most important option. In addition, a higher proportion of shoppers year on year are using click and collect services, whereby they purchase an item online and then pick it up from the store.
The findings of Accenture’s survey point to a new stage in the development of the interplay between the online and physical retail worlds. What consumers increasingly expect is a seamless experience across all channels. That means, for example, consistent product ranges across all channels, with the same promotions and prices available regardless of how a consumer chooses to shop.

The struggle for seamlessness

In terms of delivering a seamless experience, most retailers are still finding it hard to forge deep connections between virtual and physical. Less than one-third of consumers surveyed said that their accounts were connected across in-store and online channels. Yet moving closer to a singular experience, regardless of which channel the consumer uses, will pay clear dividends. For example, simply being able to find out in real time about product availability would persuade the majority of customers (89%) to make a purchase.
Of course, bringing the two worlds together is a challenge. But it’s also a huge opportunity. Harnessing detailed customer information across all - digital and physical - channels and touchpoints, and by deploying analytics, can create the basis for new models of customer engagement and personalized service.

Reinventing the store

So what does that mean for the future of the store itself? One thing’s for sure; more of the same is not an option. As retailers rethink their physical space they need to understand it alongside their virtual presence to create a new and differentiated customer journey. In this new world, not all physical locations need to be destination stores. But those that do need to offer something exceptional in order to stand out from the both the online and the physical crowd.

One key element will be retail staff that have deep product knowledge and can offer customers advice and support unavailable elsewhere. As consumers now routinely do their own product research online, staff who are one step ahead of them can really help differentiate the in-store experience and help close a sale. Achieving that level of service will require retailers to invest in and commit to in-depth training.
Of course, some stores will need to be primarily about convenience. Understanding different customer needs and behaviour through analytics will help to determine the best use of physical locations.

Too much choice?

But it’s not simply the in-store environment that retailers need to consider. Product assortments also need careful consideration. While choice is a consistently important factor in making a retailer attractive, the question of just how much choice must be offered requires close attention. Simply having an extensive assortment is often seen as a positive end in itself. But closer analysis questions the profitability of pursuing a policy of ‘assortment for assortment’s sake’. Instead, successful retailing comes from acting as a curator and editing the choices available in order to provide customers with an evolving assortment, both online and in-store, that reflects their preferences and ‘derisks’ the choices they make. The aim is to meet a wide variety of needs but without the requirement to continuously extend the number of items offered.

Bringing it all together

Bringing together deep insights into changing customer needs and behaviour alongside understanding how they will impact the development of online and physical retail channels will become increasingly critical for success. As Accenture’s research shows, today’s shopper does not favour one channel over another. Rather they’re seeking the optimal combination that will offer the right experience at the right time. Winning retailers will respond by delivering the best of both worlds, seamlessly.

Dave Richards is Global Managing Director of Accenture Retail. He can be reached at

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