For years, marketers have been talking about the Holy Grail of retail: the convergence of offline and online markets. And whether brands want to facilitate it or not, customers are already pushing away the boundaries between these two forms of commerce.

After all, we research on our laptops before visiting stores, or we check prices before taking an item to the counter to pay. People naturally blur the distinctions between offline and online, and we all do this differently. Some people prefer to see and touch things before making a decision, others value the convenience of online shopping – and for many of us our preference depends on the nature and value of the purchase.

Consumers have been pushing for a convergence of offline and online for years, but lately businesses have been doing more to smooth the journey for those customers that switch between the two.

Online and offline retail – order online, pick up in store

For every long-standing brand that is closing, there seem to be digital retailers stepping into the malls and high streets of Western towns and cities. Amazon is dropping lockers into shopping centres and book shops into malls. Customers increasingly expect to have more options about when and how they receive – or collect – their orders.

Using online data to improve offline experiences

One of the greatest strengths of online retail is the wealth of data that we gain and use to serve our customers more effectively. Increasingly, organisations are recognising that this data can also upgrade the in-store customer experience. This could mean looking at regional differences in customer habits, or changing the offers that customers receive at the till. Online spectacle retailer Warby Parker has used their knowledge of customer locations to determine the sites of their first offline stores.

Personalisation

The seamless connection between online and offline means you can do more to personalise the customer experience. This doesn’t just work between the web and the real-world; you can also flow data in the other direction, and send customers emails based on their purchases, or give them a coupon connected to a recent in-store order.

Geo-location beacons and notifications

Rare is the customer who doesn’t have a smartphone in their pocket. This means that retailers can leverage this technology to complement the customer experience. Using in-store beacons, customers can be alerted to special offers and deals that are relevant to them. Or you can use AR and VR to bring products to life, or to guide shoppers to the most interesting products available.

These features must be deployed sensitively, as they can lead to a creepy sense that customers are being watched or tracked.

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