Customers Look to a Better Buying Experience in Stores and Out

How can retailers meet expectations?



Priya Gohil


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Confession time: I’m not great at online shopping. Every time I’ve bought clothes, the anticipation has quickly turned into disappointment. Either it’s the wrong fit or just not the quality I wanted. And the rigamarole of returning the unwanted item has led me to make an early New Year’s resolution of never doing it again.


As much as I dislike shopping for clothes, in general, nothing beats an in-store experience. It offers a tactile, immediate way to appraise the garment, try it on for size, and make an on-the-spot decision to purchase or walk on. No need to faff about with packaging and return labels and queuing at the post office.


That said, online shopping, arguably, is convenient, and with the pandemic driving many consumers to perusing websites, more people are used to it.



Now, as the 2022 holiday season is firmly in its stride, the shopping trend appears to be bridging both experiences. According to a global survey commissioned by cloud communications platform Sinch, consumers are increasingly adopting a hybrid shopping approach that couples in-store visits with the ability to make purchases digitally.


The research, which is based on nearly 3,000 consumers, highlighted the importance of retailers enhancing the buying experience through providing layers of automation. Around 92% of respondents indicated they would message a chatbot to check if a product is in stock before visiting the store, while 73% want to view goods in a shop but then make the final purchase on their mobile phones—even while they’re in the store itself! I’m not entirely convinced by this approach myself, but there is something to be said about messaging the retailer to check on product availability ahead of making (what could turn out to be) a fruitless journey.


Consumers are clearly receptive to the idea of messaging or chatting with retailers for such reasons as to initiate product returns, exchanges, and refunds (90%) or get updates on items left in their online baskets (89%). In fact, over half of respondents messaged a retailer via a social media platform believing it to be a faster path to getting an answer over emailing, calling, or visiting a store. Yet, over half of customers felt frustrated by lack of engagement and one-sided digital conversations. According to Sinch, only a quarter of such queries receive an instant response while 75% of queries can take hours—if not days—to receive a response, with some simply going into the ether.


Jonathan Bean, Chief Marketing Officer at Sinch, said that by bringing “rich messaging, chatbots, or other conversational technologies” to the retail experience, shoppers will be better supported in however, whenever, and wherever they want to engage with the stores. But he warns brands and retailers that if “direct messaging and its inferred immediacy” do not keep up with consumer expectations. then “they will take their business elsewhere.”


Retailers are increasingly looking at ways to optimize not just online buying processes but in-store ones for customers, too. High-end fashion retailer Burberry opened its first “social retail store” in Shenzhen, China, in 2020. This store marries social media tools with an offline brand experience. For example, the store integrates with China’s most popular messaging app WeChat, allowing shoppers to book fitting rooms, pick clothing merchandise ready to try on, and make appointments with sales personnel via a mini program in WeChat. And, by scanning a product’s QR code, shoppers can access more information about the item in the store.


More mid-market fashion retailers are using digital technology to elevate customer in-store experiences as well. UK-based River Island has added three high concept centres to its 300-strong physical high street stores. New in-store technology includes smart changing rooms that will identify products that shoppers bring in to try on, allow them to request different sizes, choose alternative items, and request assistance from an in-store stylist…all without the need to leave the room. An artificial intelligence (AI) styling tool called Chloe is on the shop floor ready to offer customers style advice and tips after a few simple questions are answered.


“Just as it has in our home and work lives, the line between physical and digital experiences when shopping has become increasingly blurred. The winners this holiday shopping season will be the retailers that do more than just optimize online and in-store processes,” concluded Bean.


Happy holiday shopping!