Customers today look to multiple channels for product research, decision-making, and ultimately to purchase. While one customer may conduct research online prior to making a purchase in the store, another will head to retail first to examine the products and later buy online. Either way, the challenge for retailers vying for market share and brand loyalty transcends the products themselves. Now, more than ever, it is critical to create a customer experience that engenders enthusiasm and satisfaction across all sales settings.
It’s not a question of whether to shop, but where to shop
Based on individual preferences, depending on who you ask you’ll hear why on or offline shopping is the way to go. For many, e-commerce offers a number of benefits; customers that browse online have vast numbers of products to explore. Various tools also allow them to dig deep into product information and look quickly at a variety of options and features.
And, over the past few years, newer capabilities have made the experience even more engaging. Technologies today let customers examine products in virtual 3D environments — with the ability to rotate, zoom, and interact with the product. It’s an experience akin to having the product in hand.
Furthermore, online interactivity puts customers in control of the sales process, allowing them to determine what is viewed, heard or seen, based on their needs and preferences. In an age when information-on-demand reigns and customization is key, the importance of this ability can’t be understated.
By allowing the customer to control the flow of information, his or her perception of the buying experience is significantly enhanced. For these reasons, the online environment continues to grow in importance for every category of hard goods, particularly with big box and complex products.
Customers who shop brick-and-mortar expect something a bit different. Inside the store, a customer can look at a product to see how it works, perhaps open a cover, replace a battery, or take other such actions. And, when customers are in need of further clarification or have questions, they can tap the expertise of a salesperson.
In fact, the availability of a sales associate is often cited as a major reason for using the offline sales channel. Access to a sales expert influences the offline buying decision by ensuring that accurate information is conveyed to the customer, rather than assuming that the customer will arrive at the appropriate conclusions on their own.
A tale of two channels
If only the best of both online and in-store worlds could meet, a multichannel utopia would be born. A well matched online and offline environment would offer user-controlled information flow; access to all products; interactive experiences to see not just the form but also the functions; and convenient access to concise product information of particular interest.
Unfortunately, this utopia doesn’t exist. Sales situations are usually less than ideal, and multichannel retailers often struggle with their online options. Many only offer product information through “static” Web pages or videos, where sequences of information are universal and unchanging. Absence of interactive capabilities can frustrate customers who want to learn more about a product.
The in-store experience presents as many challenges. Most offline product information sources are shallow and offer limited detail, especially when customers want in-depth information on particular features. And in many cases, the actual product the customer wishes to see is not available, because the options they desire differ from those offered on the “floor model.” Finally, access to a highly trained sales associate that knows the entire product line is often unlikely.
United we sell
What’s needed is a single platform that allows for an engaging, interactive, customer-driven experience at every touchpoint. The benefits of this type of environment include bringing true interactivity to the online experience; providing the ability to create “endless aisles” of products in the offline experience; sharing consistent, concise product information, highlighting benefits, features, and use-case content with both environments; and enjoying significant returns through reuse of virtual or digital assets across multiple channels.
Use of interactive experiences, which combine the visual characteristics of the product with explanatory content, can be applied online as components of product pages or catalogs, and offline in large, interactive, virtual product showcases.
Focusing on creating an interactive sales environment lets the customer remain in control of the process, making the experience far more engaging and relevant. Providing concise and accurate product information at every encounter enhances the ability to remember key pieces of information, enabling customers to make informed buying decisions which result in higher degrees of customer satisfaction and brand loyalty.
Gavin Finn is president & CEO of Kaon Interactive, a software company offering 3D interactive marketing solutions.