Holiday green and red lighting of Denver Union Station.
PHOTO: Teri

Around this time last year, I learned first-hand what it feels like when a multi-channel retailer underdelivers in the physical store.

Needing a ball gown for a fancy event, I made an appointment with a personal shopper at a department store. But after driving an hour from my home, I discovered that all the dresses in stock were way too casual. The woman helping me told me that in order to buy a ball gown, I’d have to go to their website.

I’d never ordered a ball gown online and, quite frankly, I didn’t want to. I wanted to see them, feel them and try them on before I purchased one. As a tall woman, I’ve had my fair share of online shopping challenges, and buying a ball gown online seemed like a next-level challenge. But I didn’t have a choice.

When all was said and done, I ordered over 10 gowns online from multiple retailers, charging them all to my credit card in the process. After trying on the dresses at home a few days later, I kept one and returned the others, which required me to box them all up, slap on shipping labels, and drop them at my local FedEx, UPS, and USPS locations, as they all used different shipping providers.

Great Digital Customer Experience — But at What Cost?

This interaction left me with mixed feelings about the retailer whose store I visited in the first place. While I had a good digital experience with them, I was surprised and disappointed I didn’t get what I expected when I trekked to their location: a physical engagement with an item that required it.

Another thing you need to know about me before I go on: I love online shopping. Like many people who have embraced ecommerce in recent years — and all the more so during and after the pandemic — I’ve come to see it as the default option. I’m all in on Amazon, Target, Instacart, DoorDash and many others.

But I also know that shopping on the internet simply can’t replicate the tangible, up-close-and-personal experiences that remain ideal for many kinds of products, including clothing, furniture, appliances and more. It can’t replace certain other qualities about the store experience as well.

No wonder a recent survey of more than 2,000 shoppers by UserTesting and market research company OnePoll revealed that consumers still flock to stores for a variety of reasons, including instant gratification, better deals, no shipping costs and a better overall customer experience. In particular, 40% said it’s the excitement of in-store Black Friday that draws them to brick and mortar — with 63% saying Black Friday shopping is a tradition for them.

Related Article: 1 Trip to the Mall, 2 Hybrid Customer Experiences

Craving 'Multi-Sensory' Experiences

Marketing professors Jonathan Z. Zhang of Colorado State University and Scott A. Neslin of Dartmouth College conducted an in-depth study of customer buying behavior and found many crave the “multi-sensory” experience that stores provide.

“A critical role of the physical store is to enhance customer value by providing physical engagement. Customers need to purchase ‘deep’ products — products that require ample inspection in order for the customer to make an informed decision,” they wrote. “Ecommerce has an important limitation: it falls short in physically engaging customers.”

All of this explains why the brick-and-mortar channel not only is surviving but expanding. As of August, there were 4,432 store openings and 1,954 closures nationwide, the largest number of openings in the past five years, according to Coresight Research. The growth is being driven by not only traditional retailers but online retailers increasing their footprint by opening physical stores.

So, what are the key elements in an outstanding in-store experience? Here are five.

1. A Uniquely Enjoyable Experience

When consumers buy online, they often go in knowing what they’re looking for and, as a result, their interaction with a brand becomes purely transactional, based on factors like availability, price, shipping costs and speed, etc. Smart retailers, however, try to create an engaging experience in the store that doesn’t or can’t exist online.

While just about every retailer has wisely invested heavily in capabilities to create seamless digital and omnichannel experiences, many also understand the value of making their stores better and memorably enjoyable to draw people in.

Ever notice, for example, how an Apple Store always seems packed with customers?

Related Article: Can Branded Storefronts Help DTC Brands Succeed?

2. Inventory Visibility

This is huge. How many times have you considered going to a store to buy a certain item but thought, “They might not have it in stock, I’ll just get it online?"

Giving customers the ability to see on an app or website, by individual store, whether the item is available removes that uncertainty and brings customers into the store. Bonus points for providing aisle and shelf information, as the major home improvement retailers do.

3. A Super-Seamless Experience

The UserTesting/OnePoll survey showed that though in-person shopping remains popular, customers increasingly expect the digital technology they have become used to throughout their lives to be blended into the brick-and-mortar experience.

Retailers should take this to heart and look to capabilities such as self-checkout, smart shopping carts, digital coupons, and in-store placement of QR codes that enable customers to access product information or coupons with their phones.

Remember: The boundaries between online and offline have blurred.

4. The Human Touch

As retailers reimagine stores for these digital times, it’s critical to remain focused on the ultimate objective for all this technology: more meaningful connections with customers.

For instance, retailers are “equipping store associates with mobile devices that make customer data and insights accessible,” according to Salesforce. “That means employees can engage store shoppers as they enter physical locations and quickly support online shoppers who have questions about merchandise or returns.”

Related Article: 3 Ways Businesses Can Level-Up Their Physical Experiences

5. Convenience Innovations

The partnership between Kohl’s and Amazon — in which customers can visit their local Kohl’s store to return Amazon items, without a box or label, for a free return — exemplifies the kind of out-of-the-box (no pun intended) thinking that can bring in customers.

The retailer has been giving discounts on Kohl’s purchases to such customers. Axios reported that the practice is helping drive traffic to stores (though the effect on overall sales is still being determined).

As these five points show, it’s well within retailers’ power to cultivate a great in-store experience. That’s important because even in the digital age, physical engagement is vital to brand loyalty. These days, my ball gown trouble should be an anomaly.