Imagine you walk into a brick-and-mortar retail store and need help finding a well-fitting shirt for your next business dinner. You’ve shopped here before but have never bought a formal shirt, so you don’t know your size in the brand. Or maybe your son is straight out of college and needs to buy his first suit, and he doesn’t even know what “36S” means, let alone what cut he should be wearing.
These are the times where in-store retail sales associates shine. They don’t just help you locate a great product. They’re a helpful advisor who understands your true need, presents curated options, and works with you to identify the best possible selection.
In person, we don’t question the value of high-quality sales associates. Yet online, where so much of brand and retail growth will be won in the coming years, these helpful guides are often nowhere to be found. At best, online shoppers are dealing with an impersonal and deeply limited chatbot. At worst, there’s no one to help whatsoever.
These impersonal experiences undermine conversions, loyalty, and the ability to win customer loyalty in the highly-competitive eCommerce space. So, let’s review three common practices where the ecommerce customer experience lags behind its in-store counterpart — and, on the flipside, the huge opportunities for brands who double down on human-led online shopping experiences.
Let’s say you walk into an electronics store for your next pair of wireless earbuds and — before you even get a chance to look at any of the shelves or displays — a sales associate immediately chases you down with a coupon for 10% off all their items. If they’re dying to give away their products to you at a lower cost, what does that say about the value of their offerings? You’d most likely be wary of the quality of their products and hesitant to keep browsing.
Trying to make the sale with a discount right off the bat doesn’t only undercut the perceived value of your products. It robs you of the opportunity to build the trust that makes customers feel truly welcome. Yet this happens all the time in eCommerce, where human brand experts are extremely rare — but pop-ups that offer 10% off a new product are everywhere.
If it’s not ideal for sales associates to greet a shopper with discounts right when they walk through the door, it’s even worse for associates to ignore a shopper, leaving them to fend for themselves. On the one hand, online shoppers have never had more options to choose from, so they should be able to find the perfect product. On the other hand, the abundance of options makes finding the right item overwhelming. Shoppers want a conversation — a social feeling — to cut through the noise and facilitate their experience.
If you were a mall kid, you know that feeling. You could rely on conversations with friends to figure out which styles to choose and what looked best on you. And even if you went to the mall solo, you knew that a helpful store associate could lend their insight and guide you to a great purchase.
But this social element is absent from most eCommerce experiences, which rely on a do-it-yourself model (with intuitively low conversion rates to boot). The burden is entirely on the customer to evaluate all the options, seek out reviews and research, and discover fit and style insights. There’s little opportunity for an eCommerce shopper to feel truly seen and heard by someone with his or her best interests in mind. Instead of being a delightful social experience, eCommerce feels isolating and overwhelming.
Shoppers may have some idea of what they’re looking for when they enter a brick-and-mortar store, but more often than not, they’re seeking some inspiration. That’s where a styled selection of items hand-picked by a sales associate comes in. Curation gives shoppers a place to start that feels customized. And for that styled outfit, all it takes for a shopper to find each piece and get more recommendations is to ask an associate.
While brands have tried to adopt this kind of curation for their eCommerce sites — especially considering how many consumers value personalized experiences — the reality is rarely as smooth as a high-quality in-store experience. Too often, if a shopper clicks or taps on a photo of a styled outfit on a model, they get sent to a page of products that the model wasn’t wearing. When brands fail to offer curated visual experiences, they inadvertently make eCommerce maze-like and frustrating — the opposite of the enjoyable experience it should be.
Retail employees would never encounter an in-store shopper who wanted help finding a curated set of items and tell them, “Sorry. We don’t help with that. Figure it out yourself.” So, why settle for the same online?
The prevalence of underwhelming online shopping experiences shouldn’t be discouraging to brands. Quite the opposite — the status quo is a huge opportunity. With many brands throwing their hands up on the eCommerce customer experience, online sellers that prioritize that experience can stand out more easily than ever.
Making shoppers feel welcome, replacing solo shopping with a sense of companionship, and curating the shopping experience can all be done by what we like to call a brand expert: a real-life human concierge who greets online customers, listens to their needs, curates options, and helps them choose the best possible product. This person isn’t a customer service representative. They’re an additional salesperson, just like an excellent in-store associate, who boosts conversion rates (which currently hover around 2 to 3 percent for eCommerce), loyalty, and your reputation — especially relative to your competitors, most of whom are probably relying on chatbots to help customers navigate online stores.
We are living in the age of AI, and you should absolutely use tech to support your staff and your eCommerce success. Technology plays a key role in making human-centric commerce more effective, for example by crafting custom landing pages with the products a human expert has curated for a specific shopper.
But we don’t need to hand over every element of the shopping experience to bots — and the retailers who want to win in the age of AI won’t. Instead, they’ll take advantage of technology to maximize the impact of humans. Because the best brands have always involved a little bit of (human-powered) magic.