While many of us technology evangelists rave about why e-commerce is shaking up retail and how the smaller merchants can now take the fight to more established players, we still have to temper all of that with some dose of reality. Success of e-commerce in any region is still affected by a number of factors and exclusively online merchants have a lot of ground to cover before being a real threat to brick-and-mortar shops
As with emerging trends, there is always inertia to overcome. Take retail, for example. Online retail has seen an upswing with the rise of e-commerce channels in Southeast Asia but one cannot discount the staying power of established retail players.
While in the US, brick-and-mortar retail has seen itself disrupted by the likes of Amazon, we have yet to see something similar happen in the region. As things are still just shaping up, opportunities exist for both new and established players to offer the next game changing retail experience.
Buyers attitudes still matter
Among the appeals of e-commerce is the convenience it brings to consumers. You just have to click away on your computer and the product arrives at your workplace or home. You don’t have to physically travel, deal with traffic, and fight for parking spots just to get to a store. Online stores often have cheaper products too since they do not have to pay for rent and utilities like how brick-and-mortar shops do. Despite these conveniences, e-commerce still has a 3 percent penetration in the region.
Brick-and-mortar continues to have an appeal in the region. Malls are seen as social spaces and hubs and not just places for retail. In the Philippines, even infrastructure is forced to be developed around malls thus exposing mall-based shops to maximum foot traffic guaranteeing visibility. Brick-and-mortar still holds sway over a chunk of the population who still do not have access to both electronic banking and e-commerce as customer base.
Then there are those intangibles of physical interactions in retail. There is always an appeal to being served by another human when buying. Being able to touch and even smell products before making the purchase still provides a sensory appeal to consumers. More customers also seem to trust merchants with physical stores. With the proliferation of fake products sold even in supposedly reputable online marketplaces, being able to physically survey the product provides buyers with a degree of security, which is difficult or even impossible to do when buying online.
Omnichannel experiences as retail direction
It is in these intangibles against which exclusively online retail outfits cannot compete. Another advantage for established brick-and-mortar businesses is that they can always put up online retail channels with ease. It does not cost much to participate in marketplaces or even putting up basic online stores.
However, the ultimate challenge for those doing so is differentiating the experience for both online and physical so that these channels reinforce brand strategies and do not end up competing with each other.
To achieve such balance, businesses must focus on providing a complementary and, if possible, seamless experience across all channels. Social media can function to provide up-to-date information. Online stores can handle orders and delivery. It is with the brick-and-mortar stores that may need redefinition. Rather than simply having a browse-and-buy customer experience, physical stores can provide more immersive experiences.
Bringing the digital into brick-and-mortar
There are quite a number of technologies that are aimed to digitally enhance the buying experiences in physical stores. Virtual and augmented reality displays can help buyers better visualise products before buying.
Portions of the buying process should be automated or sped up. Cashless and frictionless payments are only starting to get some traction in the region since adoption, support and developments in digital banking and towards financial technology have been rather slow. On a positive note, fintech players like Vend seek to consolidate inventory management and payments for all channels in order to simplify life for merchants going omnichannel.
Proximity beacons have also been making their way into physical retail stores in recent years. These beacons can interact with users’ mobile devices to provide more information or gamify the buying experience inside stores. Beacons makers like Estimote are even promoting a development community. With the abundance of coding talent in the region, these could even create a lucrative ecosystem for developers and businesses that delivers interactive experiences for consumers.
Omnichannel as a differentiator
Optimising retail practices for omnichannel experiences could be the difference maker for such businesses. This basically involves ensuring a frictionless user experience, wherein they can shop and pay with ease whether at the physical store, an e-commerce website or a mobile app. Brands should, however, be able to manage their sales effectively, with the ability to manage payments, transactions and customer relationships within an integrated platform.
Skincare company Aesop seeks to achieve such a balance by clearly defining the purposes of their brick-and-mortar stores and their online channel. Physically, they have created signature stores where customers are immersed in beautifully designed spaces and get a consultation experience. Online, customers can access rich media content and also order products to replenish their supply. By doing this, Aesop lets their channels complement each other rather than compete.
Such is the pit into which many brick-and-mortar brands jumping into the e-commerce bandwagon fall. Some think that the online channel is a digital version of a physical store and offer the same browse-and-buy experiences for both. Some think of the online channel as a digital brochure to showcase their merchandise. Either way, businesses that simply do these fail to maximise the potential of having both channels.
Also Read: 4 Workshops to Level Up your Fintech Startup
All about the balance
The small but growing penetration of e-commerce in the region allows for brick-and-mortar merchants not to be readily threatened and disrupted. In fact, this allows them to readily explore providing omnichannel experience for customers.
Businesses should seek the balance and maximise the ways that they could interact and engage with customers. Technologies are now available for them to do so. The always-on and immersive experiences created by omnichannel approaches allows businesses to promote their brands not just as products and services but as lifestyles.
The views expressed here are of the author’s, and e27 may not necessarily subscribe to them. e27 invites members from Asia’s tech industry and startup community to share their honest opinions and expert knowledge with our readers. If you are interested in sharing your point of view, submit your post here.
Image Credit: stockbroker / 123RF Stock Photo