How to Bring the In-Store Shopping Experience Online


A quick study of brands that excel in ecommerce shows us that (1) just bringing in-store merchandising online doesn’t cut it, and (2) there is no such thing as “business hours” online. And in the era of the NOW Customer, shoppers demand digital-first convenience and not just more personalized experiences but empathetic ones —no matter where they are. The NOW Customer also compares their shopping experiences to services like Amazon Prime Now, Doordash, Netflix, and Uber Connect. They expect that same experience from other brands, even the small or new ones.

Retailers that incorporate some of the best practices below and use an omnichannel approach that can bring the in-store shopping experience online in a differentiated way that exceeds the NOW Customer’s expectations. If you need more motivation, eMarketer analysts expect online commerce to reach 23.6% of total retail sales by 2025—a significant jump from 11.0% in 2019. To get the NOW Customer’s attention and win their business, retailers have to reimagine their customer experience across the buyer journey.

Refresh Product Assortment and Layout

Product assortment is one of the key strategies retailers use to increase revenue and other KPIs, both in-store and online. Two primary components in product assortment are depth – how many different varieties of each product you are selling – and breadth – how many different products you are selling. And more is not always better. If a customer is offered several varieties in a product line, it could become a more complicated decision to make purchases. The effectiveness of assortment planning depends on how your customers interact with the products and your brand. 

Studying your consumer preferences and buying behavior coupled with the inventory data and the right merchandising tools will give you insight into how often to refresh product assortment and optimize the product mix. Conduct this analysis frequently, perhaps quarterly to start, because of ever-changing consumer behavior. A top seller a month ago may not be what consumers want next month, and with so many retailers to choose from, NOW Customers will quickly move on if you fail to live up to their expectations. 

A compelling visual merchandising strategy plays an important role in assortment planning for ecommerce. Brands use website UX and visual identity elements like imagery, color, copy, video, unique website layouts, and more to engage their customers’ senses online. However, ecommerce visual merchandising is more than displaying products in an appealing, eye-catching way. The focus is on optimizing the buyer journey and elevating the customer experience. It’s about supporting shoppers to explore and discover your products and offering a personalized, consultative shopping experience that drives sales and revenue.

Best practices:

  • Establish or re-evaluate your product assortment strategy with data-led insights from customer preference and purchase history.
  • Compare the breadth and depth of your product assortment to identify opportunities and areas that need improvement in pricing, product categories, etc.
  • Conduct a usability/UX audit of your site and solicit feedback from customers on the branding and functionality of your site.
  • Leverage your buyer journey data to identify gaps between the products and experience your site delivers and what your customers expect.
  • Retailers should explore partners like Carro, which provides an easy fully-integrated cross-store selling functionality from a network of Shopify’s top D2C brands. Cross-store selling with Carro enables any store on Shopify to sell products from another, without having to purchase inventory, all the while being able to keep orders, inventory, and payment splits in sync in real time. Cross-store selling is an effective profit-increasing tool in ecommerce.

In today’s hyper-competitive ecommerce space, a poor site experience translates into lost revenue and potentially a brand reputation crisis. With high expectations for site performance and ease of use, shoppers will leave a site if they can’t easily and quickly find the products they’re looking for. Here are some ways top brands optimize their online product discovery. 

Intuitive Product Discovery

Window shopping, browsing the aisles, touching items, and seeing what catches your eye are the perks of traditional in-store shopping. And this browsing leads to impulse purchasing. Just think of the checkout line of your favorite store and all the extra stuff you threw in the shopping cart on the way out. The good news for ecommerce is that 54% of impulse purchases happen online. Online retailers can aid product discovery by promoting items that are likely to appeal to their customers.

There are several ways to incorporate intuitive product discovery into your business – and not all involve a heavy investment. QR code window retail is one way to bring the in-store shopping experience online. The recent Square Future of Retail report found that 20% of customers are interested in window shopping with QR codes for purchases, and the number is higher at 27% among Millennials. Social retail is also growing; 43% of retailers who sell on social platforms say half or more of their revenue comes from social media sales – with a large percentage from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok, respectively.

During the pandemic, shopping over video or livestream became popular as retailers looked for ways to show products and engage with customers. Since then, livestream retail has grown and continues to grow. Virtual reality (VR) has also gained interest. VR retail provides customers with an immersive experience to engage with the product(s) and can be an effective way to improve sales with a “try-before-you-buy” experience. Square’s report shows that 23% of customers are interested in VR retail, and among Millennials, that number is higher at 33%. The more confident your customers feel about your products, the more likely they will buy from you. 

Best practices

  • Audit how product discovery currently happens on your site – examples are through browsing, search, and recommendations – and identify both areas for improvement and innovation. 
  • Invest in tech that allows customers to see (in real-time) what’s going or is already out of stock and automatically promotes similar alternatives or popular items to cross and upsell.
  • Develop a product discovery strategy that aligns your buyer journey and customer preferences and expectations with innovative ways your business can bring the in-store experience online
  • Use a test and learn approach when implementing new experiences, such as livestream retail and VR retail, and benchmark performance against your data to measure success.  

Another consideration is product discovery doesn’t have to end after checkout. You can surprise and delight your customers by including free samples in their delivery. As with product assortment, the key to success with product discovery is to leverage customer insights gained from purchase history, engagement tracking, CX and UX surveys, and other KPIs for data-led decisions. 

Personalized Customer Service (Concierge Services) 

Another benefit of in-store shopping is that sales associates are physically there to offer personalized support to customers during their shopping experience. Online shoppers can also have this tailored experience through personalized digital offers, product recommendations, and live chat. And as we’ve learned, NOW Customers are used to and demand personalized experiences online, so no more excuses. 

While online retailers cannot physically see customers, their digital identities and footprints reveal so much more. With advancements in analytics, brands can leverage data about individual consumers and their shopping habits and use that insight to determine what to sell, what to charge, and how they market to them. Online channels provide brands with more insight into a customer than in-store and traditional channels because of all the robust data brands can capture through multiple online engagement channels. This data informs omnichannel approaches to marketing, product assortment, discovery, and overall customer engagement. 

A key element of the in-store experience that consumers are demanding in online experiences is the ability to get in-the-moment help, interaction and consultation as they’re trying to buy. Retailers continue to innovate ways to mirror in-store concierge-style services online with technology and strategies that drive revenue and customer engagement. One trend has been an increase in chatbot usage as a means for brands to offer 24/7 customer support. However, consumer willingness to use chatbots remains uncertain — unless there is an option for live support. 

A 2021 Simplr study found that 95% of shoppers interacting with chatbots said their live chat experience would have been better with human help. Another key finding was that a seamless transfer from bot to human results in 60% of consumers being more likely to continue doing business with the brand. More on this in the next section. Below are some ways brands can deliver a personalized customer experience to their customers. 

Best practices

  • Leverage all available data to understand customers and offer promotions and product recommendations based on their interests and behavior across all online channels. 
  • Equip your customer service team to be as responsive, empathetic, and on-brand as possible with a consistent tone of voice (as if they were in the store in person with the customer).
  • Include live chat on product pages to let shoppers get answers immediately and use it as another touchpoint for building brand affinity and increasing sales.
  • Make it easy for customers to speak with a live person, rather than a chatbot, who can give personalized answers that haven’t been copied and pasted from a script.

As noted above, live chat has become a critical piece of the online shopping experience, giving retailers a way to humanize their brand online and customers a way to engage with a brand in the moment. This type of consultative and conversational feeling or experience is most commonly referred to as “conversational commerce,” which we will cover next.

Conversational Customer Experiences 

Conversational commerce aims to bring the personal and physical in-store shopping experience online using the communication channels that customers are actively using. A customer engaging with either a live agent, AI bot, or hybrid of both can have their questions answered in a two-way conversation setting and eventually purchase directly within the dialogue. Conversational commerce uses conversation to offer a personalized, consultative online shopping experience that drives sales and revenue. And customer service live chat is a critical component of conversational commerce in the digital environment.

With conversational commerce, retailers can reimagine the online shopping experience for their customers, allowing them to engage at critical moments in the buyer consideration and purchase decision journey. Customers can chat with and get information from sales or customer service reps, and they can directly click-to-buy all from within their choice of social communication tool or channel. Retailers benefit from commercial commerce by using communication channels, like live chat, to interact with customers on a two-way and often real-time basis (unlike email). The engagement helps to improve customer service, personalization, and convenience – everything that typically facilitates moving customers quickly through the purchase funnel.

Brands that deliver a truly conversational commerce experience competitively differentiate themselves in an increasingly crowded online marketplace. Value-enhanced customer service, enabled by conversational commerce, is a growth driver for online retailers by providing a set of capabilities that makes buying easier for customers, drives more conversions, and drives more customer loyalty.

Best practices:

  • Use conversational commerce to mirror or extend your in-store experience for brand experience consistency and to build brand affinity and customer loyalty.
  • Take an omnichannel approach to your conversational commerce experience design and integrate all backend systems to empower agents to personalize the service they deliver.
  • Implement a blend of automation and human staffing, for example, couple live chat with 24/7 coverage and outside agents via Simplr’s human cloud network.
  • Be transparent about who is behind the chatbot bubbles to manage customer expectations and give customers the option to transfer to a human agent.

Next, we will discuss what companies like Apple, Sephora, and Amazon do really well – upselling and cross-selling during checkout.

Checkout Upsells

Upselling and cross-selling are both crucial to ecommerce sales. Retailers who use both can lower their customer acquisition costs and grow their average order value. The core difference between the two is upselling gets customers to purchase a more expensive version of a product, and cross-selling gets them to buy related products. You can see examples of effective upselling and cross-selling during every Amazon purchase. Not only does Amazon recommend similarly priced items or items that are popular on the product pages you visit. They also engage in upselling when you finally decide on an item, offering add-ons, gift wrapping, and expedited shipping. 

When making product assortment decisions for ecommerce, online retailers should consider cross-selling to increase profits. Carro helps Shopify stores take charge of their cross-selling strategy by connecting them with the right stores to enable cross-store selling, or the ability for like-minded partners to directly sell each other’s products through their network of 30,000+ brands. Cross-selling helps customers buy items with higher profit margins and other products they might want or need. Cross-selling is an effective profit-increasing tool in ecommerce.  

Promotions are a great way to create a sense of urgency, triggering the feeling of FOMO (fear of missing out). FOMO has proven to be a key factor influencing impulse purchases, which we discussed earlier. Amazon is great at inflicting FOMO, and they’ve also effectively normalized impulsivity in the purchase process with their Prime Shipping free returns policies, for example. Customers don’t have to consider whether the shipping cost is worth it and are more likely to take advantage of promotions. 

Best practices

  • Invite customers to add relevant products to their basket as a discounted product bundle to save money versus buying each item individually. 
  • Configure your ecommerce software to recommend products based on the value of your customer’s cart value 
  • Explore merchandising and brand partnerships with companies like Carro for cross-selling inventory, new customer acquisitions, sales growth, and comarketing opportunities.
  • Promote add-on items for specific purchases, warranty options for products, and showcase items that are “Frequently Bought Together.”

The returns experience is also critical to the in-store and online shopping experience, and both directly impact customer satisfaction (CSAT) and customer retention. Here are some things you should know about returns.

Easy Returns  

According to Doodle, 84% of consumers feel the returns experience is an important part of their opinion of a retailer. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, trying on clothes was one of the major advantages of in-store shopping, especially for apparel. When stores closed and fitting rooms became limited, many brands pivoted by offering free trials and/or free and easy returns so customers could try on products at home. Pay later options also became popular, letting customers only pay once they’re sure they’re keeping their latest purchase.

While brands that offer free and easy returns are significantly more likely to acquire new customers via referrals, returns tend to be higher when consumers buy online. Customers expect retailers to have generous return policies, inspiring shoppers to over-order, like buying the same product in different colors and sizes. Along with cutting into profits, a heavy percentage of returns can hurt retailers as they try to keep items in stock during supply chain challenges.

For some retailers, the returns dilemma has inspired acquisitions and new approaches. Walmart bought a virtual fitting room start-up, Zeekit, and Best Buy has an online outlet where it sells open-box appliances, TVs, and more covered by a warranty. And some other companies, including Amazon, are providing refunds but telling consumers to keep some returned items rather than dealing with the hassle and cost of shipping back and processing a bulky, custom-made, or low-value item. Retailers should explore options and test strategies that could help reduce the volume of returns, for example, 3-D images on websites and artificial intelligence-powered tools that can suggest the right size. 

Best practices

  • Craft a clear and fair return policy that makes sense for your target customers and is consistent for in-store and online purchases (if the return policy varies, make it clear to your customers). 
  • Implement a system for evaluating customer behavior and returns, then use insights gained to improve where needed. 
  • Review the customer shopping/ buyer journey to identify areas of opportunity to optimize the purchasing process to help reduce the number of returns. 
  • Explore and test new strategies and technology-enabled experiences that could better inform and lead customers to their purchase decisions. 

Great customer service benefits the bottom line, and it can restore lost trust with customers, build loyalty, and competitively differentiate your business. In fact, Salesforce recently reported that 91% of customers say they’re more likely to make another purchase after a great service experience. The shift to ecommerce gives retailers the chance to design exceptional customer and shopping experiences. Rather than replicating your in-store experience, embrace the opportunity to interact and build brand affinity with shoppers in new ways. Deliver excellent experiences across your channels, and you can drive significant long-term revenue for your business!