Who would have thought that it would take a pandemic to turn our well established retail infrastructure on its head? Even more surprising was the fact that most digital marketers and e-Commerce gurus believed we were at the cutting edge of e-Commerce. Covid-19 proved that to be a fallacy. Almost overnight social commerce became our new form of retail architecture, and the shopping culture that was already prevalent in China took hold in a matter of months and has not stopped gaining momentum in the West.
Having said that, even prior to 2020 the tech was available for marketers to mesh live-streaming, short-form video and social-networking to show a product being designed or built. We have had influencers to take this further by demonstrating how the item can be used or worn for years now and friends to review the same product on social media is nothing new.
What has changed is the upheaval caused by our enforced lockdowns and social distancing. When bricks and mortar shopping was no longer an option we had no choice but to turn to its online version. And in the space of a few short months we adapted to pretty much everything we had physically experienced being turned into a digital platform.
Shops, entertainment and daily necessities through to medical assistance – nothing was left untouched, and social media platforms rose to the challenge launching a cascade of disruptive models.
Tomorrow’s shopping experience
Yet despite e-Commerce sky-rocketing, physical shopping is still in consumers’ blood. The lockdowns and social distancing we have undergone have highlighted just how much most of us miss social interaction and the personalised service we can get from entering a store, and this is ushering in an era of increased hybrid shopping. Again, this is not a new phenomenon, bricks and mortar brands were already experimenting with digital overlays prior to 2020 but the pandemic has hastened our need to revise our physical shopping experiences.
It was not that long ago retailers’ apparent nemesis was customers browsing their physical stores only to buy online. In truth ‘showrooming’ was an opportunity in disguise. Astute brands realised early that there was no point resisting digital advances, the only way forward was to fully embrace and harness digital and weave it into the physical shopping experience.
As a consequence we started seeing a leaning towards in-store experiences designed to provoke online ordering and vice versa. Taking an adaptive marketing approach such as this only reinforces the power of listening to customers and ensuring they have every possible platform available for making their purchase decision and then making that purchase.
Sound familiar? Of course it does, yet the resistance to e-commerce meant that bricks and mortar brands had a clouded perspective when it came to integrating digital into the shopping experience.
The pandemic flipped the accelerator switch on that blind spot.
But now we really are getting a sense of what evolved phygical looks like.
Imagine a store where the customer activates digital touchscreens next to each product that activate consumer product reviews from across the web into one place. Alternatively the customer scans a QR code next to any product and receives the aggregated reviews directly on their smartphone.
Social media will increasingly play a key role in a landscape where customers can readily tap into the wider ecosystem to check product reviews before making a purchase, and there is no doubt that creating an experience that takes the consumer out of their living room and into a brand’s ‘world’ is going to be memorable.
Nike recently developed an in-store activation that simulated an outdoor expedition while keeping Covid-19 safety protocols in mind. The experience that ran earlier this year in their NYC Innovation hub looked to re-create the feeling of visiting Smith Rock State Park in Oregon. A geofenced microsite acted as the “basecamp” for visitors, who could use the mobile site to access a map and checklist of activities that required augmented reality (AR) and scanned QR codes to complete. Once users had fully explored the activation, they were rewarded with physical goodies and an AR model of the new ACG Hiker shoe.
Whilst this type of digital interaction plays to consumers’ appetite for experiences, Amazon Go grocery stores are all about speed and efficiency. A customer scans a code with their smartphone, picks up the products they wish, and then leaves the store without passing through the traditional checkout line. Instead, the mix of tech solutions means they’ll get an electronic receipt detailing the amount Amazon will charge to their account.
Joining the ranks of Amazon and Nike, beauty company Sephora’s phygital stores combine the best of the physical and digital experience. Whilst their website offers the usual Click & Collect services, they also have the option to book beauty treatments online to receive fully digitised experiences where they can identify their own skin’s “scent group,” test their skin moisture, and access tips and tutorials for makeup application. Customers can even scan product barcodes to virtually try on makeup before they buy.
Sephora also has a range of flash stores where they offer a whole new level of phygital: smaller physical footprints that are a quarter of their Paris flagship store stock a variety of their best-selling merchandise and incorporate “digital shopping baskets” for any product not physically in store. And all stores naturally incorporate social media as well with The Sephora Experience Store featuring a Beauty Board with photos and videos made by customers, and the smaller Flash stores with a Flash Bar that has a selfie mirror and phone charger to make uploading those pics that much easier.
When these kind of digital overlays were first introduced they added a futuristic-feel to shopping as we know it – they were fun but they may not have changed our shopping experience. Now, having spent months with online shopping as our only retail experience, there has been a paradigm shift in the way consumers view shopping and it has digital sitting at its heart rather than bolted on as a fancy extra.
Quite apart from consumer’s openness to trial new shopping tech is the consumers’ desire to know more about the environmental impact of the products they purchase – something that is increasingly being embedded into digital content. In fact telling a brand’s story is not new, but now more than ever brands have to tell their story and they have to tell it honestly and with clarity.
We certainly have the technology from computer vision and AI to RFID and Augmented Reality, digital marketers need only add their imagination!
Digital push notifications combine the best of the physical and digital worlds to create an entirely new experience for the consumer. As consumers walk near a particular coffee shop they receive a coupon or other incentive to stop and visit the brick-and-mortar location. That might have seemed innovative and quirky a few years back but it could also mean less crowding in stores, managing social distancing, ensuring a quicker and slicker service…
If the pandemic has taught us anything it is that interpersonal interactions are a critical and highly-valued element for customers. Phygital is poised to take the best components from the digital retail experience such as immediacy, immersion, and speed and meshes it with physical products and personal interactions. Now with the added need to bridge social distancing digital tools can step in to minimise unnecessary human interactions whilst boosting a sense of connection.
Whilst we may be constrained to socially distance, social shopping is ramping up to transform our retail world into an exciting experience. Digital marketers can no longer afford to have separate strategies for retail and e-commerce. The next step now is to ensure standout as everyone rushes to improve their e-Commerce offering. And one thing is for sure – the pandemic has certainly evolved e-Commerce in ways that we are still discovering!