Little did marketers – or anyone else for that matter – realise that it would take a pandemic to turn our well established retail infrastructure on its head. Almost overnight social commerce became our new form of retail architecture. What was already prevalent in China took hold in a matter of months and continues to gain momentum in the West.
Of course, even prior to 2020 the tech was available for marketers to mesh live-streaming, short-form video and social-networking to show a product being designed or built. We have had influencers to take this further by demonstrating how the item can be used or worn for years now and friends to review the same product on social media is nothing new.
What has changed is the upheaval caused by our need to lockdown and socially distance. When bricks and mortar shopping was no longer an option we had no choice but to turn to its online version. And in the space of a few short months we adapted to pretty much everything we had physically experienced being turned into a digital platform.
Shops, entertainment and daily necessities through to medical assistance – nothing was left untouched, and social media platforms rose to the challenge launching a cascade of disruptive models.
Facebook, who counts some 160m small to medium-sized businesses that use its apps, rapidly re-arranged priorities as restrictions called for physical shops to shut.
By May 2020 Facebook Shops was set up to enable businesses to manage a single online store on their core social network as well as on Instagram.
By November Instagram had introduced Reels and Shop to promote short videos and online retail, whilst WhatsApp started communicating with businesses on its platforms which may eventually be used for sales.
A month later heralded Walmart’s “Holiday Shop-Along Spectacular” on TikTok that allowed viewers to buy some of its fashion items worn by celebrities directly via the video app.
Tomorrow’s shopping experience
But physical shopping is still in consumers’ blood. The lockdowns and social distancing we have undergone have highlighted just how much most of us miss social interaction and the personalised service we can get from entering a store.
This is likely to usher in an era of increased hybrid shopping. This is not a new phenomenon, bricks and mortar brands were already experimenting with digital overlays prior to 2020 but the pandemic has hastened our need to revise our physical shopping experiences.
It was not that long ago retailers’ apparent nemesis was customers browsing their physical stores only to buy online. In truth ‘showrooming’ was an opportunity in disguise. Astute brands realised early that there was no point resisting digital advances, the only way forward was to fully embrace and harness digital and weave it into the physical shopping experience.
As a consequence we started seeing a leaning towards in-store experiences designed to provoke online ordering and vice versa. Taking an adaptive marketing approach such as only reinforces the power of listening to customers and ensuring they have every possible platform available for making their purchase decision and then making that purchase.
Sound familiar? Of course it does, yet the resistance to eCommerce meant that bricks and mortar brands had a clouded perspective when it came to integrating digital into the shopping experience.
The pandemic flipped the accelerator switch on that blind spot.
But now we really are getting a sense of what evolved phygical looks like.
Imagine a store where the customer activates digital touchscreens next to each product that activate consumer product reviews from across the web into one place. Alternatively the customer scans a QR code next to any product and receives the aggregated reviews directly on their smartphone.
Social media will increasingly play a key role in a landscape where customers can readily tap into the wider ecosystem to check product reviews before making a purchase.
Some brands are already experimenting with this such as C&A in Brazil that uses smart hangers to display how many people online think the garment is a good buy. Shoppers can then consider that input as they browse the store aisles, opting between a popular shirt with more than 1,000 likes or to go under-the-radar and pick the one with just a few hundred likes.
Whilst this type of digital interaction plays to consumers’ appetite for reviews, Amazon Go grocery stores are all about speed and efficiency. A customer scans a code with their smartphone, picks up the products they wish, and then leaves the store without passing through the traditional checkout line. Instead, the mix of tech solutions means they’ll get an electronic receipt detailing the amount Amazon will charge to their account.
Other retailers have tailored digital to showcase their unique brand message such as luxury fashion brand Rebecca Minkoff whose flagship stores have interactive screens on the main floor and in the fitting rooms that allows customers to flip through look books or order a free coffee or glass of champagne. RFID tags recognise each item brought to the fitting room, and shoppers can pull up product screens that show the item styled with different looks, as well as other available sizes and colours, mirroring online shopping.
When these digital overlays were first introduced they added a futuristic-feel to shopping as we know it – they were fun but they may not have changed our shopping experience. Now, having spent months with online shopping as our only retail experience, there has been a paradigm shift in the way consumers view shopping and it has digital sitting at its heart rather than bolted on as a fancy extra.
Quite apart from consumer’s openness to trial new shopping tech is the consumers’ desire to know more about the environmental impact of the products they purchase – something that is increasingly being embedded into digital content. In fact telling a brand’s story is not new, but now more than ever brands have to tell their story and they have to tell it honestly and with clarity.
We certainly have the technology from computer vision and AI to RFID and Augmented Reality, digital marketers need only add their imagination!
We need only cast our minds back to Pokemon Go, the addictive game that used augmented reality and provided an unprecedented opportunity for marketers to reach consumers, to realise we have been toying with phygital for some time. Now we are weaving it into our daily lives.
Digital push notifications combine the best of the physical and digital worlds to create an entirely new experience for the consumer. As consumers walk near a particular coffee shop they receive a coupon or other incentive to stop and visit the brick-and-mortar location. That might have seemed fun and funky a few years back but it could also mean less crowding in stores, managing social distancing, ensuring a quicker and slicker service…
If the pandemic has taught us anything it is that interpersonal interactions are a critical and highly-valued element for customers. Phygital is poised to take the best components from the digital retail experience such as immediacy, immersion, and speed and meshes it with physical products and personal interactions. Now with the added need to bridge social distancing digital tools can step in to minimise unnecessary human interactions whilst boosting a sense of connection.
Whilst we may be constrained to socially distance, social shopping is ramping up to transform our retail world into an exciting experience. Digital marketers can no longer afford to have separate strategies for retail and eCommerce. The entire shopping experience has to be multi-layered and interlinked if tomorrow’s consumers are to enjoy an improved user experience.
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