During the pandemic, e-commerce exploded with 10 years of growth in just three months. Brick-and-mortar shopping was already in a steep decline, but the pandemic severely punished physical stores. In April 2020, foot traffic to stores nosedived, and even once untouchable retail icons plunged into bankruptcy.
Yet almost half of shoppers report a desire to return to physical stores. Regardless of the drawbacks, like limited inventory due to static square footage and fixed shopping hours, 33% of consumers still like to touch and feel products before they buy.
As post-pandemic life emerges, here’s a look at some new strategies that brick-and-mortar can leverage to compete effectively — and a few tricks that digital-first retailers can grab from the best pages of the physical store playbook.
Automate And Reduce Friction Everywhere
We now operate at digital speed. The faster a shopping experience completes, the greater the satisfaction. That’s true in digital and physical commerce. Even the best physical retailers — Walmart, Target, etc. — have friction: long lines, parking, complicated returns, inventory hiccups, etc.
Routine tasks like checkout, price checks and returns need to be automated fast. Artificial intelligence (AI) and advanced analytics can speed up product discovery, dynamically route employees to crowded parts of the store, learn shopping patterns for product placement and streamline communications with customers inside and outside the store experience.
For example, stores have different layouts, and shoppers are easily lost and often site search for particular items. That’s a huge opportunity for technology. Shoppers can connect to the store by phone, type in a keyword and let AI technology instantly guide them to an item. And since you must boost sales for each shopper who steps in, maybe suggest some related purchases along the way.
BOPIS, ROPIS And Click And Collect: The Demand for Instant Gratification
Amazon, arguably the titan of e-commerce, recognizes the need for instant gratification. It started with Prime (two-day delivery), and it keeps speeding up the time from order to delivery and reimbursement to return. The key? The integration of digital and physical commerce. Customers don’t even have to pack a product for an Amazon return any more. They just bring it to any UPS, Kohl’s or other physical location, and as soon as it’s scanned, the credit appears — no friction and instant gratification.
Physical commerce needs to follow suit, and it can compete because for most consumers, physical stores are closer and more available than warehouses and delivery fleets. In most urban areas and suburbs, retailers can integrate online and physical store inventories, providing shoppers a choice between BOPIS (buy online, pick up in store) or shipping. And they can explore the “closest” store inventory and find what they need. These transactions start digital, providing upsell opportunities, and end physically, reminding consumers of the store and its (hopefully) helpful employees.
Good Help Can’t Be Hard To Find
Automation has its frustrations. Chatbots are universally hated. Knowledgeable employees are critical for key situations. How many times have you screamed “agent” into an automated telephone menu? Some of the best online brands now have product experts standing by to help solve problems and, of course, upsell. And physical stores have a massive advance here. Chatbots are horrible and aren’t likely to understand the context of your situation. ACE Hardware made a brand out of knowledgeable store associates who can talk you through your plumbing disaster. Good luck using any old online retailer for that.
But this only works if staff and management fully utilize technology to automate the routine and make those experts readily available and smarter for valuable interactions. For example, any associate can be an expert (and even a “fashionista”) if they have a point-of-sale app with AI personalization technology that lets them make smart, relevant recommendations to shoppers.
The “New” Shopping Experience
First, get the small details right. A dumpy store with bad parking, poor lighting and signs of neglect won’t fly. Even reducing square footage to create smaller, exceptional physical experiences — and turning the rest into a warehouse — will do wonders.
But this goes beyond screwing in new light bulbs and power washing walkways.
Automation and aggressive tech adoption — when done well — can amplify the human experience in all kinds of commerce. Post-pandemic, there is going to be a temporary surge of “physical” interaction. Consumers just want out of their makeshift home offices and Zoom rooms. This is a massive opportunity for brands with physical locations and supplier brands to partner. How can you digitally amplify the old-fashioned makeovers, window displays and other experiences into new, tech-driven, immersive experiences? A hand-on experience, digitally amplified — and vice versa — is where commerce can shine.
Long-term, consumers are only going to leave their homes to shop out of necessity, where convenience is king or for an experience. Just like e-commerce must provide constant creative and frictionless digital experiences, so must physical commerce. Technology can do a lot, but it rarely replaces creativity. What incredible experience can you deliver that is immersive, modern and fun? Can you partner with manufacturers for clever in-store experiences? And keep it fresh?
Think about it. The merchants that reinvent and combine the best digital and physical experiences for back-to-school, Black Friday and Santa 2.0 are going to reap riches as commerce slingshots out of the pandemic.
This article originally appeared in Forbes.