The customer experience includes all of the interactions that a customer has with a brand across all of its channels. This includes a brand’s social media presence, mobile apps, websites, customer service chat, voice calls and brick-and-mortar storefronts. Customers today expect there to be a seamless, exceptional experience across all of these mediums. The pandemic is starting to wane and customers are now going back to retail outlets in person. Let’s take a look at the ways the physical experience impacts the digital customer experience and vice versa.

Customers Are Returning to Retail Outlets

The pandemic caused a major shift in consumer behavior. Lockdowns, business closings and social distancing influenced consumers to embrace online shopping, home delivery and curbside pickup. Although many consumers are still using online shopping for the majority of their retail needs, others have returned to in-person shopping at brick-and-mortar outlets. According to a 2022 Capgemini report, in November 2020, 34% of consumers indicated that they maintained significant interactions with physical stores, a number which grew to 67% in November 2021. More importantly, 72% said that they expect to resume significant interactions with physical stores in the longer term after the pandemic subsides. According to a 2022 CNN report, in May of 2022, online retail sales increased 2.2% compared with the same month a year ago, while in-store sales grew 13.4%. Consumers are beginning to slowly return to in-store shopping.

Peter Messana, CEO at Searchspring, a search, merchandising and personalization platform provider, told CMSWire that consumers who have gone back to in-store shopping are beginning to recognize that there are many things that online shopping cannot replicate. “As consumers return to in-person shopping, they’ll remember what they loved about the in-store experience pre-pandemic—the store associates that knew their preferences, the fitting rooms that made it easy to try on clothes and the socialization with other shoppers and associates,” Messana said, adding that with these experiences fresh in customers’ minds, it’s critical for ecommerce stores to step up their game.

Brian Greenberg, CEO and founder of Insurist, an insurance quote comparison service, told CMSWire as the pandemic starts to wane and customers return to retail stores, retailers will have to rethink the way they engage with their customers. "Customers are going to expect an exceptional customer experience, whether in-person at a store or online on their smartphones," said Greenberg. "They'll want to be able to find exactly what they need, right when they need it. And they'll want that experience to be personalized and tailored to their needs and preferences—in other words, they'll want the same kind of personalized experience they're used to getting from ecommerce sites like Amazon."

Related Article: A Decade of Dramatic Change in Digital Customer Experience 

The Brand Experience Is Expected to Be Consistent

As Greenberg related, customers today expect the same exceptional experience they have with a brand’s online ecommerce site to extend to the brand’s brick-and-mortar retail outlet. They expect to be recognized, and the brand must find ways to extend the online experience into the brick-and-mortar experience.

Ricky Joshi, co-founder and chief strategy officer of Saatva, an ecommerce luxury mattress and bedroom company, told CMSWire that he designed and equipped his in-store viewing rooms to re-create the digitally native experience his customers have with his brand online. “[The viewing rooms] are conceived as self-guided spaces where visitors can interact with our award-winning products and learn about the features at their own pace, as well as receive personalized assistance from our sleep guides when they want it,” said Joshi. 

Rather than viewing the in-store customer experience as separate from the digital experience, Joshi considers each to augment the other. “We look at our physical retail presence as a brand enhancer. Including smart technology in the retail experience that makes the shopping process seamless and efficient will be important to maintain post-COVID,” said Joshi, who added that it makes the experience even better for customers who want to control their journey in the retail environment.

Messana said that the No. 1 way for brands to bring the physical experience online is through personalization, which allows brands to reach out to customers in a similar fashion to customer interactions with staff in store. “For example, personalization can be used to create recommendations that direct shoppers through the ecommerce store, much like an in-store associate would,” Messana said, adding that recommendations can be in a search bar, in emails or throughout landing pages. “If done right — with personalized elements that are engaging and well aligned with the company’s brand — the ecommerce experience can replicate the friendliness and ease of an in-store shopping trip.”

Many of the barriers that stop customers from making a purchase online when they would not hesitate to do so in-store can be eliminated or minimized. “For shoppers who miss the convenience of an in-store fitting room, the ecommerce website can help make sizing easier. For instance, an ecommerce site can showcase items available in a customer’s usual size first or include size-checking features based on how well previous purchases fit,” said Messana. 

Many online retailers are exploring ways to replicate the in-store experience, such as offering “try-then-buy” options for online purchases. Amazon’s Try Before You Buy program allows customers to order clothing and other items online and try them at home for seven days, at which time they can return or purchase the items. Other retailers, such as Sephora, are using augmented reality to enable customers to virtually try on makeup to help them decide whether or not to buy an item.

The socialization that consumers seek through in-store experiences is often lacking when they shop online. Forward-thinking brands are finding ways to bring that socialization to the online shopping experience. “Retailers can improve socialization on the e-commerce site by increasing and personalizing user-generated content,” said Messana. “This can come in the form of ‘similar-users-bought-this’ recommendations or reviews from shoppers who usually buy the same size,” adding that these aspects will help with social-proof marketing that gives shoppers the confidence required to make a purchase.

Learning Opportunities

Consumers expect each of a brand’s channels to enhance, rather than detract from each other. “Ultimately, digital and physical retail experiences need to complement each other, be consistent as well as seamless,” said Joshi. 

Kristin Dorsey, VP of marketing at Linc, a customer experience automation platform provider, told CMSWire that retail brands need to understand that CX isn't measured, or felt, through a single lens alone. “The experience of a brand is felt on the website, on the phone line, through the app, in the parking lot of the store and so on,” said Dorsey. “So when your customer enters a store, the experience provided there may set an expectation of what they will experience on the site.” Dorsey believes that consistency is key and makes the challenge to provide a stellar, cohesive customer experience that much more daunting. “If the experience on any one channel is broken, that experience bleeds into the whole.”

Related Article: 2 Years Later: How Customer Service Has Changed 

The Digital Is Connected to the Physical

Part of the reason that consumers are eager to return to in-store shopping is that shopping is a social experience that is difficult to replicate online. Being in a store with other shoppers, being able to hold a product, try on an outfit and ask for assistance from an employee, still holds value to most consumers. The difference today is that many consumers will research a product online before they head to a retail outlet, so they are typically better informed by the time they search for a product in the store. Additionally, they may come armed with the outlet’s mobile app, so they are able to easily locate the product within the store, find discounts and special deals, and continue the positive experience they had while shopping on the brand’s online store.

Keith Carpentier, CEO of Qbuster Technologies, which bills itself as leading digital transformation within retail by bringing the power of online to the in-store experience, is in a good position to understand the connection between the physical and digital shopping experience. Carpentier told CMSWire that retail is about more than simple goods procurement, it is about connecting people with the things they need, when they need them. “It is about community. It is about the experience. It is about being human,” he said. 

“Today’s consumer does not want shopping to be a binary experience — either online or in-store,” said Carpentier. “Customers want fluidity and consistency wherever and however they shop. Technology adoption and inclusion within traditional brick-and-mortar shopping exploded during COVID-19, and it will only continue to grow.” Carpentier believes that this revolution in shopping marks the next phase of retail where digital and physical come together to provide a richer customer experience.

Much like Carpentier, Emilia Vahvelainen, head of growth and retail at global technology agency Reaktor, reiterated to CMSWire that the future of retail is omnipresent technology — physical and digital business models are merging into one — and with that, come new challenges and opportunities. “The brands and retailers that will win in the 2020s are the ones that harness technology across all functions,” said Vahvelainen, who suggested that online and brick-and-mortar stores are more interconnected than ever, creating complicated consumer journeys and more responsibilities for retail employees. “Brands need to be present at all points of that consumer journey and show up in ways that speak to the entire range of customer experience: discovery, consideration, purchase and post-sale support,” said Vahvelainen. “That requires never-before-seen versatility and agility to respond to change.” 

The Takeaway: Customers Expect Seamless Experiences

The physical customer experience is inexorably tied to the digital customer experience, and consumers today expect a seamless, consistent experience across all of a brand’s channels. Brands today must bring the digital into the in-store experience — and vice versa — providing a personalized experience that will delight and engage customers, enhancing and improving the entire customer journey.