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For retailers, maintaining the success of their physical stores amid the seemingly unstoppable rise of e-commerce can sometimes feel like an uphill struggle.

That’s why many have looked at what digital does best and found innovative ways to re-create it within their stores, whether by installing digital networks in their physical premises, or by offering “endless aisles” providing access to limitless inventories through in-store touch screens.

And that’s great. These digital innovations are a vital part of reinvigorating the in-store experience. But it’s worth remembering that they build on — rather than replace — the unique qualities that physical stores have to offer. So, it’s time to remember what truly makes in-store shopping special.

Jill Standish, senior managing director and head of Accenture’s Retail practice. Photo courtesy of Accenture. 

How? Here are three simple ideas to make sure customers get fully engaged in the bricks-and-mortar retail experience.

Let them feel

First, use the power of touch. There are plenty of daily purchases for which digital commerce is perfect. Restocking a familiar product, for instance. Or shopping for commodities based solely on utility and price. But, equally, there are many times when a customer wants to do more than simply touch their smartphone screen. They want to get a true feel for the product before they buy.

That’s the physical store’s true unique selling point. This is where a retailer can exploit the powerful correlation between tactile engagement with a product and a sense of ownership over it. And this can be an extremely effective driver of sales.

Leading retailers know this well. Why do Apple stores display their MacBooks at precisely 76 degrees open? Because they know this encourages shoppers to adjust the screens — and get an instant feel for the product. That creates a strong personal connection and makes it just that little bit harder to walk away from a potential purchase.

Ultimately, the challenge for retailers is to design a store environment that encourages customers to physically engage with the products at all times.

Let them learn

Second, send in the experts. Engaging with a passionate, confident and knowledgeable store associate can really change how a consumer views a retailer’s brand. Especially if they can go beyond just talking about the products and offer genuine specialized advice.

Department stores and apparel retailers use associates to advise on the latest trends and fashions. Some grocers use their associates to explain important ideas around product sustainability and build a brand reputation for environmental awareness. And there are many outdoor sports equipment retailers whose associates are themselves enthusiasts for the sports they’re advising on.

The store offers a retailer a unique and differentiating opportunity — to explain its brand vision and values through human interaction. And that’s something that really counts, especially with today’s thoughtful and expertise-seeking consumers.

Limit the technology to what works

Finally, be clever with the technology. Just because a physical store is all about tactile engagement doesn’t mean technology has no role to play — far from it. But simply filling a store with digital devices and interactive screens won’t always work. In fact, it risks distracting as much as delighting.

Some retailers have found that installing digital displays that show alternative products while in the dressing room may be more distracting than helpful. By offering customers too many alternative choices to think about puts doubt in their mind that they’ve picked the right item.

Accenture, Fjord, part of Accenture Interactive and the Council of Fashion Designers of America have been engaged in some interesting research to understand where the optimal balance of physical experience and technology lies.

In one experiment with leading fashion designer Prabal Gurung for his residency at the CFDA Retail Lab, small digital panels were used to tell an engaging three-part story about how certain products came to be in the store. This story, covering everything from the high-quality raw materials used, through the expert craftsmanship involved, to the journey to the store, offered a quick way to engage with a product on a new level. By keeping the panels simple and clear, and placing them next to the items they described (as well as a mirror to try them on), simplistically told the product story without distracting from the most important part — getting a feel for the physical product.

In another experiment at the Retail Lab, again with Prabal Gurung, the technology was even hidden within the product itself, offering a seamless blend of digital enhancement with tactile experience. Digital projectors and mirrors were installed inside mannequins, meaning they could project text onto the clothes they were displaying, seemingly from nowhere. The experiment used these mannequins to give customers a true sense of Prabal’s unique philosophy by projecting his statements onto his fashion. More importantly, this clever use of technology never got in the way of the key interaction between customer and product.

Plenty of life in bricks-and-mortar

E-commerce offers consumers just what they want and need in an ever-growing number of retail scenarios. But it can’t do everything.  Visiting a physical store will remain an essential part of retail for some time. That’s because it offers something unique — it’s a chance to see, touch and feel the products as they actually are. It’s a chance to learn about those products, as well as the brand and its philosophy, in a broader sense — from people who really know what they’re talking about. And it’s a chance to experience all this in an environment that uses technology to truly enhance — not distract from — the retail experience. If they can get the balance right, retailers will find that the physical store is still a brand differentiator and a way to tell their story for many years to come.

Jill Standish is senior managing director and head of Accenture’s retail practice, and John Jones, senior vice president of design strategy at Fjord, part of Accenture Interactive.

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