Brick-and mortar retailers have been hearing it for years now: Shoppers are coming to your stores, playing with your merchandise and buying on Amazon. The practice known as "showrooming" has been hailed as the death knell for traditional stores, but after a busy holiday season full of in-store shopping, it appears that the playing field has been leveled. If not flipped entirely.
"Webrooming," researching products online before going to a physical store to make a purchase, was the buzzword on retailers' lips as they rang in the new year. The Harris Poll found in December that 45 percent of U.S. adults planned to webroom as part of their holiday shopping, and those shoppers had already spent on average $200 on holiday shopping, compared with $150 for shoppers who didn't plan to webroom.
For consumers, the benefits of shopping in-store are becoming clearer: They avoid paying or waiting for shipping, interact with the products they want to buy, and have a more convenient return option if they're unhappy with the purchase. And, according to SmartFocus CMO Jess Stephens, shoppers are learning to get all those benefits without added costs.
"Webrooming consumers enjoy the in-store shopping experience but are increasingly price savvy, researching prices online and then asking for these prices in-store," she pointed out.
Deloitte's Jeff Simpson believes this change of heart in the online vs. offline shopping battle comes down to two factors.
"There's a rising tide to begin with, there's just more consumer adoption of smartphones and the features and functions of smartphones," he explained. "And second, there's more sophistication for those who are using them, by which I mean the ability to connect the browsing session with the buying session on the phone. It's far easier to buy in-store than it was."
Traditional retailers are getting better at integrating mobile and digital experiences into the in-store shopping experience, while pure-play online brands have even started to dip their toes in the brick-and-mortar waters. The lines between online and in-store are more blurred than they've ever been. In fact, Simpson said Deloitte found that 50 percent of in-store sales are influenced by webrooming, meaning that from a practical perspective, it's virtually indistinguishable from showrooming.
"When you get to half, is there even a difference between webrooming and showrooming anymore?" he asked. "E-commerce and in-store buying have become so intertwined that, in the consumer's mind, they're the same thing…it's almost silly to try to pull them apart anymore."
If the focus is no longer on prying smartphones out of in-store shoppers' hands, then the priority for retailers becomes ensuring that their shopping experience is smooth across all channels, making it as easy as possible to buy in-store.
One way to harness this newfound willingness to shop in-store, suggested Stephens, is to integrate offers and rewards into a mobile app that are exclusive to in-store shoppers.
"Engage customers with incentives," she recommended. "Sending location-specific mobile vouchers and coupons that can be redeemed at a nearby physical store can entice a potential purchaser in-store."
Many retailers are already making use of technology such as beacons to do just that, improving customer loyalty and reaching notoriously difficult demographics. That technology can also be used to collect data on customer behavior in the store, such as heat maps of where shoppers tend to gravitate and what their past purchases and preferences are, helping retailers build a better experience.
One particularly successful strategy Deloitte has seen is using brick-and-mortar inventory to fulfill online orders when the product in question is out of stock. If an online customer wants to buy something but that item isn't available at the retailer's e-commerce distribution center, the shopper will be given the option of picking it up at a nearby store instead.
This is obviously a tactic that has become much more common with the rise of in-store pickup programs, and according to Simpson it has provided big bottom-line results. Two of Deloitte's major clients began fulfilling online out-of-stocks with in-store inventory over the holiday season and were able to fulfill 40 to 50 percent of those orders they would have otherwise lost, hugely outperforming the 10 to 15 percent range they were expecting.
The moral of that story should be an uplifting one for traditional retailers. Simpson believes that if brick-and-mortar retailers can master that type of strategy, they have the chance to not only catch up with pure-play online retailers, but overtake them.
"If you think about the $3 trillion dollars in business that's done annually in retail in the U.S., and you say that digital influence is 50 percent, then the pure-play guys are really only looking at 50 percent of the opportunity," he explained. "The brick-and-mortar folks can go after the full $3 trillion, whereas the pure-play folks can only go after $1.5 trillion."
In other words, the tables have turned. As the shopping experience becomes more digitally integrated, traditional retailers have the opportunity to become more flexible in making the sale, regardless of whether customers choose to webroom or showroom before they buy.