Retailers are continuing to invest in their digital platforms and strategies, with a new focus on incorporating in-store digital experiences through a variety of apps and platforms.

As the pandemic grinds on, consumers are making their way back to brick-and-mortar retailers and enabling in-store digital experiences that augment or better connect consumers to their online shopping experiences will prove to be a crucial point of differentiation. In fact, Nearly two-thirds of consumers are using retailers’ apps in-store to meld physical and digital experiences, according to a recent global survey by Airstrip.

Millennials in particular are most likely to perform multiple in-store digital activities, including using the retailer’s app, comparing prices, and using loyalty cards and coupons stored on their phones.

Opportunities Abound to Offer In-Store Digital Experiences

As put by Brendan Witcher, vice president and principal analyst of digital business strategy with Forrester Research, there's no shortage of things for retailers to work on. “The physical store today has multiple different ways that it's failing to meet the needs and expectations of today's digitally savvy, channel agnostic consumers,” he said. “So much of it centers around the consumer using their mobile device as an app option.”

There are many retailers out there, for example, who are revisiting QR codes as an option for giving customers access to product reviews and items that are in the store. Witcher pointed to companies using electronic shop labels to create dynamic pricing and dynamic promotions to make themselves more competitive. From his perspective, it’s simply a matter of where retailers see the most value, be it providing customers a loyalty card that automatically surfaces onsite to remind them of rewards they’ve earned, or providing digital concierge services via the app.

Other app features include wayfinding and inventory checks, click-and-collect, detailed product information, demos, and digital extras. He added the augmented reality business case makes a sense for certain companies where consumers need to put something on something to buy it. “For furniture, where I need to see something in my living room, or beauty, where I want to put something on my face — that's where the business case for augmented reality is built,” he said. “Other than that, there's not a lot of there's not a lot of use cases. “We don't really need to wear an Oculus to buy bananas, right?”

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Mobile Payments, Wayfinding and Activating App Features In-Store

Michael Debnar, principal of retail and digital innovation at Medallia, said the focus should always be on convenience. For example setting up an app function for 7-Eleven that lets customer scan products with their app, pay for the products and walk out of the store. This is enabled by the “in-store” mode of apps, which can offer other benefits such activating loyalty cards or pointing customers to new products they may like.

Another in store mode feature he sees more retailers enabling is wayfinding, which helps direct the customer to the part of the store where their desired product can be found — particularly important for stores with massive physical retail footprints. “Only the retail leaders have done that so far, but I would say the in-store mode is going to be big,” Debnar said.

To get started on a digital in-store journey, he said businesses should do a current situation analysis to understand customer needs and determine which metrics that are going to gauge success, for example an increase in average order values, or more trips to the store.

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Learning Opportunities

Trip Assurance Can Guide Customers Inside

Debnar pointed out another digital experience, which while not technically “in-store” is critical to getting customers to that location: trip assurance. This focus lets customers know before they make their trip that the item they need or the problem they need solved can be attained at this location.

Being able to offer trip assurance also involves information on what products or services are available in that store or being able to check the inventory before going to that location. “It’s a really important use case, and if you're a retailer that's enabling that for your customers, you're going to get a disproportionate amount of their business,” he said.

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Digital Innovations Help Employees Add the Human Touch

Witcher added that digital experiences don’t have to be directly focused on customers to improve their experience in-store. “One of the things that the industry has lagged on is being able to empower associates to be as wise about the products and services that the company offers as the customer is,” he said. “More often than not, the customers walking in the door with more knowledge than the associate has about inventory and products and things like that. Well, what that does is it devalues the associates.”

He said the smarter retailers are figuring out how to optimize those associates by making them smarter by equipping them with voice-based AI devices that can supply them with information as to whether something is in stock or comes in different colors or is offered at a discount. “This enables associates to be smart without having to learn about the 30,000 SKUs a big box retailer might carry,” Witcher said. “That real time knowledge lets associates be of real service when consumers walk in.”

This way, the customer is getting value not just by touching and feeling the product, but because there is an informed person they can trust, and who is knowledgeable about products and services the retailer offers.

Debnar agreed, noting the transition between digital experiences and in-store experiences needs to be seamless, as customers will judge your brand on the totality of the experience. “To deliver that combined experience, you need to be looking at innovations that simplify processes and make it easier on your employees to deliver that experience to your customers,” he said. “What is important here is that the digital team starts the transaction, and they have to be responsible and accountable to the very end.”