What if running an online store wasn’t all that different to running a physical store? If you look at online stores vs physical stores, is there really that much difference?
Sure, online stores don’t have quite the same overheads as a physical store (hosting fees are almost always cheaper than rent). There’s also no face-to-face interaction involved when selling online. However, aside from these differences, many of the same rules and tactics apply to both online and physical retail.
Below are just a few ways in which the rules of a physical store can be applied to an online store - and vice versa.
If you want to attract customers into a physical store and get them to buy your products, you need to create an eye-catching shop front and you need to create striking product displays. Similarly, when building a website that generates customers, it’s important to have an eye-catching homepage and striking product photographs.
A website that is too plain and simple won’t grab visitors the same way that a dull shopfront won’t encourage footfall. Large images on a homepage are as essential as a vibrant window display. Bold call-to-action buttons on a website can meanwhile have the same impact as salient signage.
In both cases, it’s important to not let your store’s appearance become stale or outdated. Just like tired decor in a store, old-fashioned web design can make your website feel less professional. Meanwhile, if you’re not making regular updates to your physical store or website, it’s unlikely you’ll get return customers as they won’t have anything new worth returning for.
Just as you would invest money into interior design in a store, it pays to invest money into web design when building a company website. With a professional eye for design, you can ensure that your store looks fresh and exciting. On top of this, it’s worth paying for professional product photographs to help showcase your products in the best light (professional product photos can also come in use in physical retail if you want to build posters or billboards related to deals).
In a physical store, customers can pick up a product and get a good idea of what they’re buying before they purchase it. Clothes can be tried on, perfumes can be smelt and in some cases food can be tasted. Physical shop owners can play to all the senses - making shopping more of an ‘experience’.
This is a level of interaction that cannot be replicated when shopping online. However, there are still ways in which you can allow customers to interact with online products to help give it that ‘experience’ feel. For instance, when providing photographs of products, you could use 3D photos that allow customers to look at a product from all angles. On top of this, there’s also the option of adding demo videos of products to give customers a better idea of them. You can even use sound clips if you’re selling a product such as a musical instrument.
Several elements of the digital experience have started to transfer over into physical stores. A growing number of stores have started to use digital touchscreen catalogues and video advertisement boards to provide a new level of interaction that static visuals cannot provide.
AR (augmented reality) technology is thought to be the next big evolution in interactive retail. This could be something that we see in both online stores and physical stores - using an app, it may be possible to try on clothes virtually or see how a sofa may look in our living room. Start planning for the future by considering ways in which you may be able to embrace this technology.
The time it takes for a customer to reach the checkout, pay for a product and receive that product makes a big impact in both online and physical retail. Many of us are put off by a slow-moving queue in the same way that we’re put off by a slow-loading website - if we have to wait a while, we simply won’t proceed. By finding ways to speed up the experience, you can encourage more customers to commit to a purchase.
In both cases, having the right technology can make a difference. With an online store, it pays to have a fast website with a simple checkout process that doesn’t require customers to fill out pages of information. With a physical store, you can often speed up service by providing digital POS machines that allow contactless card payment. Some physical stores have even started to adopt self-service checkouts - taking the online checkout process and essentially transferring it to a physical setting.
Hiring the right people can also make an impact in both cases. A physical store that is understaffed or staffed by trainees is likely to suffer from slow service. By employing enough staff to cover busy periods and by training them up sufficiently, you can speed up the rate of service and build more customers. With online stores, this applies to the packing and delivery process - you’ll lose return customers and possibly attract negative reviews if your products are consistently delivered after the estimated delivery date, so make sure to hire a reliable courier company.
Customer support is sometimes neglected in ecommerce, however it can be just as important as customer support in physical retail. Whether you’re running an online store or a physical store, you need to be able to be available to answer product queries and solve problems if they arise. Some customers simply won’t trust your business unless they can talk to someone directly.
In a physical store, customers can walk up to a member of staff and get an answer to their queries straight away. This level of instant communication previously wasn’t possible with websites ten years ago - you had to send an email in many cases, which could take hours to be responded to. Nowadays, more websites have started using website chat software, that allows customers to send instant messages to a live chat agent or a chatbot. You can even trigger these chat boxes to appear in the lower right hand corner when someone visits your site with a message such as ‘Hi, how can I help you?’ (just as a staff member might approach a customer for assistance in a physical store).
On a website, it’s often easier to provide thorough information in the form of copy that may prevent the need for customers to contact you with enquiries. For instance, an FAQs page could offer your customers answers to all the common questions that they’re likely to have. Thorough product information can also help to build customers’ trust - especially as they can’t physically hold the product before buying it. While such copy may be enough to give customers the information that they need, it’s still always worth having a point of contact for those more obscure and unique product queries. If you don’t want to provide a live chat feature or phone number, at the very least make sure to provide an easily located email address.
Return customers need to be nurtured in order to keep them coming back. This could involve remembering a customer’s name or being able to recommend them products based on past purchases.
With physical stores, getting to know customers often involves engaging in friendly conversation. With large ticket items and custom products, it’s often easier to do this as you’re likely to spend more time with each customer. Make sure to encourage your stuff to be more gregarious so that they’re getting to know customers.
With online stores vs physical stores, you can get to know customers by collecting cookies. By doing this, you can store data relating to each visitor that allows you to then make recommendations based on their past activity. Not all customers will want to share this data, so always ask permission to store cookies.
In both cases, getting customers to sign up as a member can have its benefits. When considering online stores vs physical stores, encouraging customers of either to sign up as a member can help you to collect information such as their email address, name, product history and even their birthday. You can then send personalized emails to them relating to specific products and deals (this could include product recommendations or vouchers on their birthday). You can also allow them to collect loyalty points that can then be spent on discounted products in your store.
What’s the best way to get customers to sign up? Often the only way is to ask customers directly. With an online store, this could involve asking a customer if they’d like to make an account before purchasing a product or using a mailing list opt-in pop-up. With a physical store, it could involve directly asking customers as they’re making a purchase whether they’d like to sign up to a membership scheme (giving them a physical loyalty card is often the best incentive for doing this).