Retail brands are failing consumers if online and offline are out of sync

Retail brands are failing consumers if online and offline are out of sync

When retailers treat their online and physical channels as separate entities, they fail consumers, says Terry Hunter, UK MD at Astound Commerce.

Rather than competing against one another, the online and offline channels should be symbiotic

The modern retail environment is one based on convenience. The Internet has given consumers more control over their shopping habits than ever before, making it possible to buy online anywhere and at any time.

Given the impact this has had on the high street, it’s understandable why retailers deem different sales channels to be independent of one another.

Consider new data released by the British Retail Consortium this week that’s shown the continued long-term decline of shoppers on UK high streets.

In a complex sales environment like this, where online conversions are typically on the up across the board while in-store sales are down, many would deem it foolish to invest resources into what’s considered to be a failing channel.

The reality for the future of retail, however, and for winning the hearts of consumers in the long run, couldn’t be further from the truth.

Although online shopping meets certain needs, a brand’s physical outlets serve a different purpose.

Convenience and conversation

A store is somewhere for consumers to have a conversation about a product line. Yet more importantly, it’s also an expedient location to return an unwanted item or resolve an issue immediately.

Physical stores offer a level of convenience that simply cannot be found online. So rather than competing against one another, the two sales channels should be symbiotic.

A retailer’s online and in-store presence needs to exist side-by-side, and operate without the separation which has become the crux of the modern omnichannel retail experience.

If a consumer wants to browse and view a product they’re interested in via the online store, buy it using their smartphone, have it delivered to their home, then decide to return it by visiting their local store, they should be able to do so. If nothing else, omnichannel is about creating parity between the online and in-store shopping experience.

As a concept, this is nothing new. However, many retailers have been looking at omnichannel in the wrong way and are still considering their different sales channels as separate entities rather than a single unified representation of their brand.

This has been a barrier to creating a consistent and joined up omnichannel effort that delivers on modern consumer expectations. The adage goes "the customer is always right," but too often, customers are demanding fluidity between in-store and online shopping yet being denied that privilege.

Striking a balance

There’s a balance to be struck between online and in-store, and prominent retailers have struggled with this in the past.

The partnership between Waitrose and Ocado is one example. By placing such a large emphasis on its online channel, and driving traffic to its new venture, footfall in Waitrose’s physical stores dropped to previously unseen levels.

Since then, the brand has been playing catch up to try and entice customers back through its doors, including partnering with Starbucks to offer promotions to encourage visitors.

Evidently, for a retailer that has such a large presence on the high street, the short-term benefits of pushing the majority of sales traffic online does not lead to long-term rewards.

Space NK is an example of a retailer with a much more effective omnichannel strategy. The cosmetics brand created an online sales portal that was an extension of its physical presence rather than an intended replacement.

By positioning its e-commerce arm in this way, and retaining an emphasis on the personalised shopping experience found in-store, Space NK has met the demands of today’s shoppers for an online sales channel, but has achieved this without sacrificing footfall to its physical locations.

Fortunately, retailers across the board are now waking up to this reality. Omnichannel is driving a transformation within the industry and all players need to look at building a consistent and fluid experience across all interactions between their brand and the consumer.

By using the right technology, it’s not only possible to create a joined up retail experience that will help brands reach the right consumer, with the right message, at the right time, but also eliminate the concept of different sales channels once and for all and replace them with a single brand experience, regardless of where that interaction takes place.

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