Shopping and the Impact of Digital Bias

A recent experience entailed visiting a prominent big box retailer’s physical location, comparing prices on a smartphone while in the building, and finding that the chain’s own E-retail site had the desired item for a lower price than in the store. When the sales associates refused to honor or match the price from the store’s own website, the item was purchased through the smartphone and designated for “in-store pickup” at that exact location. As the shopper watched, the item was pulled from the shelves and brought to the customer service desk, where it was promptly collected and taken home.

From the time the World Wide Web advanced to the point where the first online shopping systems began to emerge about 20 years ago, eCommerce has exploded into the mainstream. Today, mobile internet on cell phones and other smart devices have changed the game yet again, giving shoppers the ability to research products and compare prices almost instantly wherever they are, including inside a retail store. Powerhouse online retailers like Amazon.com and Overstock.com have garnered a large share of business away from traditional retail stores, forcing the brick and mortar set to open their doors online as well.

Still, in 2012, E-retail accounts for only approximately 7% of total retail sales in the US. Customers still hold on to the experience of walking into a store to shop. In an ideal situation, a retail store is a place to be helped by friendly and knowledgeable employees, see and feel the products in person, and completely avoid the wait time and hassles associated with shipping and handling when ordering from an online source.

But customers are now often rewarded for choosing the online platform over an in-person transaction. OpenTable.com gives diners points that amount to gift certificates for making an online reservation for their favorite restaurant, even if they don’t need one. Airlines now streamline the logistics of seat reservations, encouraging passengers to book online and even charging additional fees for over-the-phone purchases. Furthermore, the rise of social networking has helped both consumers and the brands they choose develop mutually beneficial relationships stronger than ever before. Looking forward, the future is bright for E-retail spending, projected in a report by Forrester Research Inc. to grow by as much as 62% over the next 4 years.

Indeed, a web-based outlet can be far more user-friendly than the physical store, and it is beginning to create a bias for many consumers toward shopping online. As the eCommerce economy continues to mature and assume more market share from traditional retailers, the lack of consistency evidenced in the big box site-to-store experience must be addressed, or physical retailers are at risk of losing even more business to e-Tail only competition. Shoppers have more knowledge and buying power at their disposal than ever before thanks to technology, and all businesses must refocus the purchase experience on what works for the consumer to succeed.

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