Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in August 2015 and was updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness on July 21, 2017.
When it comes to comparing offline and online shoppers, it seems like everyone has an opinion. Over the years I have read countless articles on the differences between online shopping and brick and mortar retail, and by now I feel I’ve heard it all. However the question I always end up asking myself is: are they really that different? At the end of the day both online and offline retailers are selling to the same people – just in different ways.
In order to get to the bottom of this highly contested issue, I decided to ask the shopping community. After all, they’re the ones making decisions about where to shop, making them the experts! I started by asking people to share why they shop at certain retail locations. I then wanted to know what makes them choose to shop on certain websites.
After collecting all of the data, I have to say that the results really surprised me! While some answers regarding offline and online shopping were different, there were definitely some threads of similarities between the two retail types. In fact, I noticed that almost all of the answers for both questions could be categorized into one of 5 categories:
With these trends in front of me, it dawned on me that instead of looking at the differences between offline and online shoppers (like I had intended), we should actually look at what is similar between them! Armed with this knowledge, I can show you how to deliver everything a shopper is looking for regardless of where they find you: in retail (offline), in ecommerce (online), or both.
What Online and Offline Shoppers Need
I’ve talked about the needs of an online shopper in the past, and it turns out that these needs are actually very similar to what retail shoppers need. As I mentioned, there are 5 categories that a shopper is looking at regardless of whether they are an offline or online shopper: location, convenience, knowledge, whether the store is inviting, and price.
Let’s look at how to address each of these categories for offline and online shoppers.
Shoppers Need Accessible Locations
In business school, we called this the three L’s of retail: location, location, and location. It’s universally agreed that nothing’s more important in retail than your store’s location. Surprisingly, this is also important to online shoppers, just in a slightly different way.
Considering Location for Retail
When it comes to choosing a retail store to shop at, the people I talked to indicated that the store’s proximity to their house or work is a huge consideration. They also said that they tend to choose stores that are where they plan to be anyway, such as a mall or shopping area.
This means that where you decide to open up your store has a huge impact on whether an offline shopper will end up choosing to shop with you. Unfortunately, the more attractive a location is to retailers, the more expensive it becomes. Finding a balance is key.
Considering Location for eCommerce
You would think that location would not be a determining factor in choosing to shop on a certain site, but many of the people I spoke to said that where a site is based is important for shipping purposes. Many people want to be sure that a store will ship to their location. As a Canadian, I can totally relate to that concern as it’s one that many other international online shoppers have.
JCPenney addresses this concern by making their shipping information super easy to find. In addition, they make shopping with them attractive to shoppers all over the world: all orders over $99 are eligible for free shipping to anywhere!
Displaying information like where you site is located, where you are able to ship, and international shipping rates can help you capitalize on a huge international opportunity. While location may not be as important online as it is in retail, it still does play a huge part.
Customers Need Convenience
This is the factor that most people talked about. In fact, the majority of people explicitly said that they shop where it’s most convenient. While the tendency might be to assume location is the only factor affecting convenience, my survey revealed otherwise.
Some other convenience factors included:
- How fast you can complete a purchase
- How easy items are to find
- Whether customers can get everything in one place
Let’s look at how convenience plays out for offline and online shoppers.
Delivering Convenience for Retail
Retailers have learned a few things over the years about making things more convenient for shoppers. For example, retailers group things in aisles that are similar or related so that it is easy to find things that are used together. They then label these aisles so you can see what they contain before you go down them.
They have also created convenience at checkout by staffing more cashiers during peak times and having express lanes. These express lanes ensure that those motivated by convenience are well serviced.
Delivering Convenience Location for eCommerce
Retail has had decades to perfect the art of providing a convenient shopping experience, but ecommerce still has some learning to do. Since online shoppers also value convenience, ecom merchants have to find new ways to offer it in the digital space. Although many might argue that shopping online is inherently more convenient than shopping at a retail location, there are still some really bad ecommerce sites out there. What makes these stores so bad? A poor customer experience.
In ecommerce, convenience is a byproduct of the user experience you create. This involves everything from your store’s layout, to branding, to checkout experience, to organization. With this in mind, convenience is made when you focus on things like:
ASOS is a great example of these principles at work, particularly when it comes to product categorization. While their competitors may break their product offerings down into a whole whack of categories, ASOS only offers two: men and women. By limiting the number of categories in their store, they make it very convenient for shoppers to find exactly what they’re looking for in a fraction of the time. This, combined with the other factors above, will allow online shoppers to quickly find what they are looking for and make a purchase with as little friction as possible.
From these examples, it’s clear that convenience plays a huge role in making a purchase for both offline and online shoppers.
Stores Need to Demonstrate Knowledge
For certain purchases, customers are looking for a store that has the expertise to help them make a decision. These are usually for more expensive items like a big screen TV or lawn mower. The same goes for online shoppers, particularly when they’re buying some for the first time, like an e-cigarette or cigars.
The way you can show your expertise varies between retail and ecommerce.
Demonstrating Knowledge for Retail
The most effective way to convey the knowledge you posses in retail is with your sales staff. When you train your sales staff to know as much about the products you sell as you do, you ensure that every transaction presents your brand as the expert.
This becomes even more important when selling products that tend to change over time, like electronics. Retail locations like Apple must ensure that their sales staff is well trained and up to date on all of the latest product offerings. As the front lines of customer service, it’s key that retail staff possess the know how and expertise customers expect.
Demonstrating Knowledge for eCommerce
The absence of sales staff makes it much more difficult to portray your brand’s expertise and knowledge online, but it is not impossible. There are two ways that an ecommerce site can establish its expertise for online shoppers.
The first is a resource center. Providing blogs, guides, and videos makes it easy for you to be found when an online shopper searches for the answer to a question. This helps you attract customers and establish that you are an expert.
Providing the information about the products you sell turns you into an industry expert that shoppers are comfortable buying from.
You can also use live chat in ecommerce to mimic a traditional sales force. Live chat allows you to communicate with your customers in real time. You can answer questions to help facilitate a purchase, just like the sales staff at Apple.
This personalized attention and expertise helps build an incredible customer experience that acts as an amazing customer retention tool to keep shoppers coming back!
Stores Need to Be Inviting
The term “inviting” covers anything visual that is not user-experience related. A lot of people choose where to shop based on looks alone, especially within ecommerce. I know from personal experience that a messy, unattractive storefront can prevent shoppers from exploring what you have to offer, so anytime one of my interviewees brought up the look of a store I grouped it into this category.
Surveys have shown that 46% of shoppers assess the credibility of a site based on the look of the homepage alone, which means it’s incredibly important that your store look - and feel - worthwhile.
How to Be Inviting in Retail
The tips I have here are pretty straightforward: keep your store clean and well organized, and match the atmosphere to your brand.
A fantastic example of this is the youth clothing brand Hollister. Whether you like their atmosphere or not, they have done an exceptional job of making their retail locations look and feel like a beach cabana in Southern California. From their lighting to even the way their stores smell, Hollister has worked hard to make every step of their customer’s journey feel on brand.
How to Be Inviting in eCommerce
When it comes to ecommerce, an inviting web store looks professional and it all starts with your homepage. This is something I’m pretty passionate about, so feel free to check out my article on 10 tips you can use to create a professional looking homepage if you’re not sure how to get started. Basically, you just want to avoid having your site look like the one below:
A clean ecommerce site follows three simple rules: keep your design simple, use clean graphics, and avoid conflicting colors. If you follow these three rules, your website design is off to a great start and you’re that much closer to offering an inviting ecommerce experience!
Shoppers Want Price to Reflect Value
The last (but certainly not least) category we need to discuss is price. When asked why they choose a particular store, price was mentioned by almost every person!
Before you assume that every customer is simply looking for the lowest price, let’s think about it for a second. If every shopper out there was only concerned with the lowest price, the only retail location would be Wal-Mart or Target and the only ecommerce site would be Amazon. However, many other stores have successfully carved out a position for themselves which indicates that this isn’t always the case.
When it comes to price, the best tactic is the same whether you are selling to offline or online shoppers.
Considering Price in Retail and eCommerce
Whether you’re online or offline, the trick is to select a pricing strategy that works with your marketing plan. If you are focused on being the expert in your industry, you can price your products higher to reflect that.
Ultimately, you need to price your products in a way that reflects how you are handling the other four factors that influence a shopper’s decisions.
The Differences Between Offline and Online Shoppers
When I first set out to find the differences between offline and online shoppers, I did not expect to find that both types are actually very similar! However, if my research taught me anything, it’s that at the end of the day customers are looking for similar things - no matter where they’re shopping.
If you’re able to address these 5 categories with your store, you can get shoppers to choose your brand regardless of whether they prefer to shop online or in store.