How Digital Media Can Save Retail

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“This is an intergalactic emergency…” – Buzz Lightyear, Toy Story

I’ll admit, I’m a digital native. When I think about shopping, my mind goes online first - if not to buy, at least to check reviews and prices. But with my son’s first birthday quickly approaching, I decided to brave the traffic and head to a Toys ‘R Us store.

Big mistake.

I had no idea what to buy. I was paralyzed by choice and I didn’t know which toys were better than others, which prices were justified, and which were really age appropriate. After settling on a truck, I stood in a line with two other people - 30 minutes after grabbing the truck, I finally paid and left. I’ll never go back. That hour-long trip to buy a $25 toy truck made it painfully clear why so many brick-and-mortar retailers are having trouble keeping up with the Amazons of the world.

As more people turn to their smartphones to aid in their shopping experiences, brick-and-mortar must hop on the innovation train if they are going to convince shoppers that there is some redeeming value to the idea of getting into the car and driving to a store.

Here are three ways retailers can marry physical and digital to make shopping in-store a rewarding experience:

1. Enrich the Experience with iBeacons

Though retailers are rolling them out slowly, I’m bullish on the prospect of the iBeacon technology (which resides in both Apple and Android phones and allows for push-notification via apps using Bluetooth Low-Energy). A recent study of its performance by inMarket revealed that interactions with advertised products rose by 19x and app usage was 16.5 times greater for users who received a beacon message versus those who did not. Plus, users are 6.4 times more likely to keep the app on their phone if they’re receiving beacon notifications.

MLB was one of the first brands to roll out beacon technology in their parks that turn them into self-guided museums. American Airlines just kicked off the largest deployment of beacons ever in Dallas Fort-Worth airport, providing travelers with information like directions to their gate and reminders to take out their boarding pass and ID as they enter Security. The Bonnaroo music festival not only provided timely updates to attendees through push-notifications, they were able to collect valuable data from their beacon installation, including the most popular stage and average time spent in certain areas.

iBeacons can improve the in-store shopping experience by providing useful information at the right place and time. As I stood in the wagon aisle of Toys ‘R Us (which was so confusing that I gave up), I could have been sent a link to product reviews or notified of what products were on sale. If I stood in front of a product that was out of stock, I could have been notified of when it would be back in stock, of other stores that have it in stock, or sent a link to purchase online (with complimentary shipping as a courtesy for my inconvenience).

2. Turn the Tables with Webrooming 

A very real threat for brick-and-mortar retailers is showrooming, where shoppers browse items in-store but purchase them online (often cheaper). But for every attack (showrooming) there is a counter attack (webrooming).

Webrooming is where shoppers research online but head to the store to make their final purchase, whether it’s for the immediacy, the ability to price-match or simply to engage with a sales associate before forking over the money. According to a study by Merchant Warehouse, 69 percent of people with smartphones in the 18-36 demo have researched online and then bought offline, while only 50 percent have showroomed. Among 37-48 year olds, 71 percent have webroomed versus 53 percent who have browsed offline and bought online.

In order for retailers to enhance buying offline, they need to arm their shoppers with the digital tools necessary to inform their purchase while in-store. This could include mobile-only coupons that can be redeemed only in-store, robust apps that allow for shoppers to price-compare (and retailers to price-match), access to customer ratings and reviews, customer loyalty programs that reward in-store purchases and discounts for social check-ins.

3. Use Familiar Digital Habits in the Physical Store

Platforms like Pinterest, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have led to social proof, where opinions are formed by seeing what other friends and complete strangers are pinning, liking, double-clicking (or hearting) and retweeting. But that doesn’t mean retailers are restricted to finding out how to get in on the ground floor of social commerce. This behavior can be and has been successfully used in-store, more simply than you might think.

Retailers don’t have to be that technologically advanced. Nordstrom curates an engaged Pinterest presence online but moved the needle in-store when they attached signage to their most pinned items. Now every Nordstrom store has Top Pinned signs on handbags and shoes, their two most popular Pinterest categories. The Container Store followed suit. This is the type of real-time feedback customers are looking for to close the purchase loop and create a true omni-channel experience.

E-commerce doesn’t have to be the Grim Reaper making stops at all your local retailers. Technological innovation is already here, waiting for brick-and-mortar stores to embrace it. Shoppers have their smartphones, and are ready to consume – online and off. Now it’s time to act.

Jon Thomas is a senior digital Strategist at TracyLocke and frequent contributor to Say Daily. Follow him on Twitter @Story_Jon.