Last week my girlfriend and I went shopping in Plaza Midwood, a trendy neighborhood two or three miles away from uptown Charlotte, N.C.

We ended up at a boutique shop called Moxie across the street from a hipster general store crowded with tattooed twentysomethings day-drinking. Moxie’s vibe was modern and eclectic, adjectives that describe their shoppers just as much as their products.

As someone who works in the ecommerce field, it was refreshing and almost alien to see one-of-a-kind products sold with such a human touch. I left with a lime-scented soy candle and a lingering thought: Can the online retailers I work with somehow replicate this appeal?

What Makes Boutiques Cool?

Which buying experience sounds more appealing to you?

  1. You leisurely stroll the intentionally unorganized rows of a neighborhood boutique shop. There’s lots of natural light. The shop owner is a gray-haired little lady in a denim apron. She’s watering a ficus when you come across a gorgeous hand stitched handbag. The shop owner tells you about the man who stitches them. He lives an hour out of the city and uses the money to fund his daughter’s flute lessons. You’re sold, and so is the bag. You buy it, thinking pleasant thoughts about young SunnyDae Smith’s upcoming flute recital.
  2. You type ‘PURSE’ into Amazon and pick the second-to-cheapest one out of the Buy Box.

There are a few reasons many people would choose the first experience.

There’s a certain allure to the hunt-and-find process of shopping at a boutique. A one-of-a-kind purchase feels more rewarding than buying a mass produced item.

It’s like discovering a secret gem that no one else has. Plus, you actually get to interact with the product before you buy it. The process feels more human and social than shopping online.

But there are also people who prefer the second experience. It’s clean and quick. I don’t intend to claim offline retail should be privileged over online retail. But I was struck with the question of how ecommerce sellers could mimic some of these appeals. I came up with a few ideas.

Offer to List Boutique Catalog Items

Olga Vidisheva asked a similar question when she created Shoptiques. She wanted to provide a platform where shoppers could find one-of-a-kind items online.

The marketplace now boasts more than 1,500 boutique sellers and made $3 million last year.

Can you create this in your own community on a micro-scale? Partnering with a local boutique to list a few of their items online will give your customers access to unique products.

Doing this on a rolling basis with multiple products or even multiple boutiques will create a unique customer experience each time someone visits your site, meaning you’d likely see improvement in traffic and retention.

Click and Collect

Click and collect is a distribution method in which a customer buys an item online and then picks it up at a physical location rather than paying for shipping.

Shoppers are attracted to the less expensive final total, and retailers love the opportunity to impulse sell. Nearly 70 percent of shoppers who used click and collect purchased additional items when they arrived to pick up their online purchase.

As the linked article points out, the major drawback of this is that the big boxes haven’t quite nailed down their inventory tracking systems.

This model is a lot more manageable when attached to a smaller scale. Online retailers without their own brick and mortar can partner with local boutiques that act as mini distribution centers.

The online seller is able to offer click and collect for customers who desire it and the boutique gets visitors who are statistically likely to buy.

Install In-Store Technology

Another idea for boutique partnerships is to offer boutique owners a monthly fee in exchange for installing technology stations within their stores.

Stores like Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom have dumped a whole lot of money lately into high-profile experiments with in-store technology.

Again, you should be looking into how to create unique, smaller versions of industry trends already happening. This could be anything from technology stations around the store that list the boutique’s catalog as well as related purchases that could be made online.

Purchases could be made and shipped directly from the terminal, which would be perfect for holiday shoppers. This type of mutually beneficial relationship would be attractive to customers who more and more desire a blended shopping experience.

Cross Audiences

Shoppers who are attracted to boutiques possibly enjoy the anonymity and seeming independence of not buying from a major retailer, so this idea has a fine line to maintain.

The goal here is for the boutique store and the online store to share audiences. It’s a partnership model. The boutique seller can offer optional coupon codes for the online store in exchange for customers signing up for the boutique’s email list.

In exchange, the boutique promotes the online store’s flash sale on its social media channels. This should always focus on presenting the relationship to customers as two related brands who appreciate each other’s products.

The internet will never be able to recreate the smell of incense burning next to an aging cash register.

The Buy Box can’t offer the same friendly smile a shop owner offers the moment they hear the bell above their door ring.

What the internet can do, however, is get at the raw psychological appeals of boutique shopping: the unexpected discovery of unique items that customers feel good about purchasing.

Providing a wholly unique experience to every shopper, every time they shop, is tough for ecommerce sellers to pull off, but by partnering with local boutiques, e-tail can start to feel a little more human.