The future of retail: blurring the boundary between online and offline

It is too one-dimensional to think of online as simply a cannibalistic threat to offline retail. Or that online will simply be where people do research for offline purchases. Businesses that get caught up in these mindsets are highly likely to be trampled in the rush of their more nimble-minded peers who keep themselves open to the opportunities to better service customer (and staff) needs through the convergence of online and offline channels.

More open-minded retailers (and I suggest these will be the more successful ones too) are blurring the lines between online and offline experiences. Not only are digital experiences entering retail spaces, but businesses are developing cleverer ways for offline to support online.

Different customer channels have very different strengths. It is not necessary for each to do exactly the same thing. They can compliment each other in interesting ways that deliver better service to customers – and deliver better profit to the business.

As a designer of cross-channel customer experiences, the following ideas strike me as interesting:

Virtual stores

Earlier in the year I experienced Woolworths virtual store at Town Hall, Sydney. The idea was a direct copy of Tesco’s virtual store in South Korea. For Woolworths this appears to have been a short-lived PR activity, but it is interesting to see that Tesco’s are further experimenting with virtual stores at airports in the UK.

As duty free retailers have known for years, when people have time on their hands there is  shopping potential. If Tesco could fulfill this promise with a grocery bag waiting when my plan lands, could this be an ideal solution for plane commuters? Could a similar idea work for train commuters?

Is the next generation of store-front a 24/7 virtual store?

Buy online, pick-up in-store

This idea sounds counter-intuitive and a hark back to the old days. After all why would someone purchase online and then go to the effort of picking up in-store themselves? Although attracted by the competitive prices and the breadth of items available, many consumers can be put off purchasing certain items online because of the need to try them on.

For consumers online often equals better prices, but it also equals uncertainty when purchasing items that must fit. Online retailers have devised strategies to combat this, primarily free return periods, but this isn’t the only way.

An interesting idea for businesses with online and offline stores is to give online retailers the option to buy online and pick up in-store. This could be offered at a discount as it removes delivery costs. The rationale here being that by getting customers into a store to pick up an item you have a far greater chance of selling them further items.

Samantha Starmer spoke about her personal experiences with this with the American shoe retailer John Fluevog at UX Australia (Designing cross-channel experiences).

Use of smart devices in stores

Whether it be a restaurant, a technology store, or a clothing retailer, smart devices are fairly ubiquitous these days for store staff. Besides looking cutting-edge, smart devices extend the service staff can offer customers and avoid all those trips to the storeroom.

An interesting by-product of this is the convergence between the tools and systems available to staff and customers. For example, the staff experience of booking a visit to Apple’s Genius Bar appears to be the same system as is available to the customer. Typically staff tools and systems are unloved, unusable and ugly things that a business would never consider sharing with their customers. Making better quality systems available to staff should reduce training costs and staff turnover.

Blurring the boundary between online and offline retail

Consumers blur the boundary between online and offline retail all the time, yet many retailers still think in terms of rigid boundaries between channels. Design-led approaches can help businesses explore and design solutions that join-up cross-channel customer experiences.


Image of Tesco’s Gatwick airport virtual store from

1 Comment
  • Daniel Szuc

    September 7, 2012 at 2:41 pm Reply


    Sometimes it would be nice to just get a smile and interested customer service without the additional digital bits and pieces.

    Perhaps there is something to be said for getting the basics right first?

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