For most e-commerce retailers, their online store is their business – but what if you have stores in the real world too? Here’s a few ideas on how you can coordinate your online and offline efforts, and foster a symbiotic relationship between the two arms of your business.

(Some of these tips require a bit of investment and are therefore more viable for larger chains, but if you tailor them to your particular retail offering, they’re definitely worth the extra effort.)

What’s the difference between online and offline?

Before we start, it’s important to understand that your online customers are not the same as your offline customers. Purchases made through your e-commerce site are often motivated by different factors to purchases made ‘IRL’ (in real life).

Web stores offer superior convenience. You can quickly find what you’re looking for, order as many products as you want – certainly more than would fit in a shopping bag, at least – and get them delivered to your door without ever having to leave the house.

Since digital stores aren’t limited by shelf space, the customer also has a much larger choice of products, and they can even buy digital products which may not have a physical retail equivalent, such as media downloads and software.

On the other hand, buyer anxiety is less of a hurdle with physical stores. There’s the option of flagging down a friendly human staff member if you need help, and with product displays and demo units, you can ‘try before you buy’. For some products (such as furniture, for example), being able to judge their aesthetics and dimensions, and get a better sense of how they will fit into your life, is essential to the buying process.

There’s also less pressure on the store owner to build trust with the customer. A brick-and-mortar shop is inherently more trustworthy – it suggests you’re a successful, genuine and reliable brand, there’s a friendly, helpful human presence rather than a faceless digital storefront, and even if the buyer ends up dissatisfied, they know they can usually just return to the store to get a quick and transparent resolution.

The key to unifying both is to use your digital presence to add convenience to your retail locations, and to use your retail locations to alleviate the anxieties of your digital buyers.


Provide a store locator

Finding an e-commerce store is a piece of cake – users can simply type in your URL or Google your brand name to find you. In fact, if your product pages are ranking well in search engines, they can still find you even if they’ve never heard of you before.

Not so much the case when it comes to physical stores. Local advertising and bold storefront branding can help you get noticed, but the reality is that if people don’t know where you are (or they don’t even know you have a shop in the area), they’re not going to go out of their way to track you down.

Thankfully, your online presence can provide a convenient solution. Add a locator tool to your site to help customers find their nearest retail location quickly and easily.

Make sure your store locator’s search box is optimised to accept postcodes, place names and GPS location services; always provide results for the nearest stores even if there are no locations in the immediate vicinity. If you’re running analytics on your site, you may need to tweak your setup to ensure your locator tool doesn’t screw up your overall conversion rate.

You should also ensure each listing is optimised for SEO, so if people look for a particular store on Google, they’ll find everything they need without having to wait for your site to load on their mobile connection.


Offer click and collect in-store

Once you click that ‘Confirm Order’ button at the end of a digital checkout, you’re now at the mercy of the postal service, and there’s always the chance the delivery driver will turn up while you’re out (or perhaps won’t turn up at all).

This is often a problem at busy shopping periods such as the festive season; which, incidentally, is also the period when buyers need their orders more urgently and have less of a budget for extra shipping costs. It’s a recipe for disaster.

This is why click-and-collect is a valuable addition to your website. If customers can reserve items online and pick them up in-store, they know they’ll receive them relatively quickly without having to pay more for shipping. It also allows you to essentially provide a larger inventory on the shop floor without the need for more shelf space.

Best of all, once you’ve got them through the doors to pick up their order, you can entice them with your in-store range to drive additional impulse purchases.


Drive mailing list signups at the counter

Here’s a strategy that applies to you whether you own hundreds of offline shops or just the one. When people go to pay for their goods at your checkout, invite them to sign up for your mailing list – that way, you can drive future purchases from them whether they’re online or offline.

Remember, customers will only want to sign up if there’s a genuine incentive for doing so. Explain what kind of content they can expect to receive in their emails; such as exclusive offers, loyalty schemes and vouchers to use in-store.

To sweeten the deal, you might want to present the sign-up sheet as an entry form for a monthly prize draw – but make it clear that by completing the form, the customer is consenting to receiving emails. You won’t do your brand any favours by associating it with spam.


Set up a digital kiosk

Here’s a handy way of translating the convenience of online shopping into the offline shopping experience, particularly if you offer a particularly large inventory of products.

Provide interactive touchscreen terminals near the entrance where customers can look up the items they want and find out if the store in question currently stocks them. For products which are out of stock, give your customers alternative options; perhaps you can tell them the location of the next closest store with the stock they’re looking for, or even better, allow them to order the item to their door and pay for it via chip-and-pin.


Offer free WiFi in-store

So, let’s say a customer has found an item in your store that they like the look of, but they’re not yet convinced about buying. They decide they want to look at reviews of the product before they commit to a purchase, so they pull out their phone and… oh, they’ve already spent all their data allowance this month.

Another potential buyer is visiting your store in their lunch break to buy an item they’ve seen on your e-commerce site. They haven’t written down the item, but they can just check it against your website on their phone to make sure they’ve picked up the right thing… oh wait, no they can’t. Their 4G has slowed to a crawl, and they’ve got to get back to work soon…

This is where offering free WiFi comes in. With a reliable connection to the internet available from the moment they step inside, your customers are free to browse while they… well, browse.

Ensure your WiFi is reliable, secure and well-signposted. Setting a simple login/register gate is a good idea, as it not only adds an extra layer of security, but also lets you gather customer details to help your online marketing efforts.


Accept returns for online products

One of the most common worries your online customers will have before they buy is, ‘What if I need to return my order?’ Whether it’s because of a faulty product, an incorrect order or simply a change of heart, customers want to know they won’t be stuck out of pocket with a purchase they don’t want.

Many businesses mitigate this issue by including a returns policy on their site, but it’s still not ideal . You’ll either have to sort out return postage yourself (perhaps at your own expense), or sit in all day waiting for a third-party courier to pick up your package.

In both cases, the retailer is asking customers to keep their fingers crossed that their package won’t get lost in the rush. And even if it does arrive safely with the retailer, how does the customer know they’ll still get the refund they want?

All these worries melt away if you accept online returns within your physical stores. Customers know they can simply come to the nearest shop to them, discuss the issue in person with your staff, and secure a refund right there and then.


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