March 15, 2021

Online shopping has increased quite a bit over the last decade, and it grew more exponentially through the COVID-19 pandemic. Approximately 25% of Americans shop online at least once a month. While online shopping is becoming more popular that doesn’t mean that physical retail is dying – or that there aren’t lessons to be learned from it. A recent study by First Insight showed a number of interesting trends around how people view in-store shopping.

According to the survey, both men and women spend more in-store than they do online. They are also both more likely to make impulse purchases in-store. People are more likely to shop in-store if they need a product right away. It’s simply easier and faster to walk in and get the needed item and walk out. Online shopping involves shipping which means people won’t get their purchase for at least a day. While habits developed during Covid are likely to remain, people still love in-store shopping. So let’s talk about how we can bring that experience online and capture some of the benefits of a retail experience.

Access to Salespeople or Support

One of the things that’s awesome about my local outdoor store is the knowledgeable staff that use the gear regularly and can point me in the right direction with my purchases. I choose to shop there even when their prices are a bit higher because of the staff.

While you can’t greet every single online shopper like a retail establishment can, there are ways to bring some of this human experience online.

Online Chat

One of the first ways you can give customers great advice is with online chat. LiveChat has a free WooCommerce plugin to integrate with their paid service. Using online chat you can have customers directly ask you questions about their purchase as they encounter the questions.

There are some common pitfalls with any online chat system though. First, don’t make your customer wait for 20 minutes to get access to an agent. While people may see a busy retail store and forgive a wait, you don’t get that grace period online. You need to be able to serve your customer promptly.

The second issue with any live chat system is an extension of the first – staffing it properly. I used to work at a non-profit that had live chat, which was always offline. Worse yet, when they were offline, it offered you the option to leave a text based message and someone would get back to you. Unfortunately those messages would be left unanswered for weeks at a time as other things on-site continued to be higher priority.

I’ve encountered this myself recently with a WordPress plugin. I used the live chat to ask a question and they were offline so I left a message. Three weeks later I got an apologetic answer to my question. We had already gone with their competitor though so the sale was lost even though they were my initial top choice. I only found their competitor after another hour of searching and it was more risky because they had fewer reviews and other social confirmation. But their chat was staffed and got back to me right away.

They got the sale – a recurring sale –  from my client because they had someone ready to answer my questions in real-time. 

If you’re going to introduce live chat to your site, make sure you address the staffing needs up front. Never assume that your staff will easily make the time to answer chat.

Pick up the Phone

When I worked at Western Canoeing and Kayaking, it was not uncommon for sales staff to have long phone conversations with potential customers. These often hour-long conversations sometimes resulted in them saying they’d call back to purchase. Most of the time, we did make an immediate sale though and I remember one sale in particular that was over $20k for an hour on the phone.

Adding your phone number to your store can bring in customers, but just like online chat, you need to remember to staff it properly. You also need to remember that call quotas can kill any chance at a sale.

If we had a time limit on phone calls at the boat store, I would have been pushing to get off the phone with that $20k sale so I could meet my numbers. In fact, most of the calls that resulted in sales would have ended long before staff fully understood the customer’s needs.

Having a real voice to talk with helps make a connection with your customers. Don’t discount phone calls and face-to-face time because it might be time intensive but it pays off in sales.

Digital Assistants

Personalized recommendations based on a customer’s needs is one of the reasons that shopping in-store can be beneficial. You get to talk to someone that learns more about your requirements and can recommend a product to fit your needs. Sometimes you’ve never even heard of the option before, and it ends up being perfect.

You can achieve this with digital assistants, like we can see at Mizuno, where their shoe picker can help you choose the right running shoes for your needs.

By following the steps for their shoe picker, you can narrow down a wide choice of shoes to the one or two pairs that are the best possible fit for you. By leveraging a plugin like FacetWP and a custom UI, you can bring customization like this to your online store. By adding the proper metadata to your products, users can filter their options down to the one or two best options for their current needs.

If you have live chat on your site, customers can even use that as the final step to help them make a choice based on the narrow set of options they’re presented with after using your assistant.

Impulse Add-ons

How many times have you walked up to the counter at a store and found some small item that you toss in the cart and leave with? If my kids had their way, it would be every shopping trip as they add candy to the cart as soon as I’m not looking. My local outdoor store leverages this impulse purchase with a set of beautiful cards with pictures of local outdoor locations on them. More than once I’ve grabbed one just because it looks so nice, figuring I’ll find a use for it later.

Using a tool like Smart Offers you can achieve a similar outcome. Instead of cluttering up your checkout with things that might distract your users, Smart Offers lets them checkout and then shows them other offers that they may be interested in. They can add these to their order even after they’ve made it without checking out again.

Real-Time Customization

I’ve already talked about leveraging FacetWP as a digital assistant, but that takes interaction by your user every time they come to your site. Apple does a bit better by showing me whether a product is compatible with the devices I own – but even they could take it further.

By asking your customers which products they currently own, or looking at their order history, you can show users new items that work with their current products. Apple could show me all the new products that have debuted since I last visited that will fit with my 12.9″ iPad Pro. Even offering a quick filter option to show only the devices I have registered with them would make finding products specific to what I own faster.

If you’re going to provide benefits to your users, they will be willing to trade a bit of information. I’d be willing to tell B&H Photo which camera I own so that it was easy to find lenses that are compatible without needing to go through the filtering process every time. Since my camera is old, I wouldn’t complain if they took the time to tell me when a new version was released and offer me the option to upgrade with them.

Free Fast Shipping

The report I mentioned at the beginning of this post said that shoppers are more likely to shop in-store if they need something right away. While not every store can provide free shipping, there are steps you can take to increase the speed that your customers can get your products.

Best Buy does a decent job of this by offering in-store pickup with an online order. I can order something and then they’ll email me when it’s ready at my local store. I’ve used this on many busy days. It saves me time and the headache of trying to wrangle three kids through the store. They could take it one step further by offering free local delivery, like Applestone Meats does.

At Applestone meats, you can place an online order and they’ll give you a pickup location. They deliver even outside of their direct region with their refrigerated truck by scheduling the longer trips on certain days of the week. They also have meat vending machines so you can get what you need even if the walk-in location is closed.

Social Shopping

One of my favorite things about my local used bookstore is the staff curated selections. Every few weeks I head in to see what’s on the shelf and I almost always walk out with something.

You can easily bring this to your online store as well, and not just for staff picks. By leveraging YITH Wishlists, you can allow users to build a custom wish list and then share it with others. I could use it to show the products my family has tested for backpacking with three kids. That would give any family doing backpacking research a leg up in their product choice since they’d be purchasing products that have already been tested by someone in their position.

You can take this even further by leveraging an affiliate plugin for your WooCommerce site and allowing users to create curated lists that they can earn affiliate income from.

With so much of what we do day-to-day going online, it’s easy to discount the old ways of doing things. But that’s often tossing away ideas and processes that have worked for years. By using some of the techniques above, you can keep some of the great experiences that come with in-person retail while also leveraging the advantages of having an online store.

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Curtis McHale
Curtis McHale

Curtis is a husband, father, developer and business coach. He specializes in helping people build a business that lets them spend time with their family instead of working all the time.

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