March 13, 2012 | Kathy Totz

Replicating an In-Store Experience Online


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More than ever, shoppers are looking to the convenience of online shopping. For example,this past holiday season we saw in-store Black Friday sales rise a mere 7%, while Cyber Monday online sales jumped 20% (AP). Even so, shopping online carries some distinct disadvantages compared to the in-store experience, since customers cannot see the complete detail of products in person or interact with sales people.  While online shopping can’t entirely replicate the brick and mortar experience, here are five ways to help bring some of the benefits of in-store shopping to the online experience.

1.) Eye Catching Displays

  • In-store: Featured collections are visually displayed, helping customers find similar or related products and see how they go together.
  • Online recommendation: Provide creative “shop-by” attributes for featured and related merchandise, for example, items that are new, popular, red in color, made of leather, highly-rated, or holiday-themed. In addition, provide recommended items on product pages.

When customers walk into a retail store, products aren’t arranged solely by category as they often are online. Instead, they are visually displayed to highlight coordinating items, styles, or themes. Shop windows and mannequins feature coordinated outfits or themes that give shoppers a sense of how to display or wear the featured products.

To replicate this visual experience online, retailers can highlight related or coordinated items in several ways. First, providing “shop-by” attributes gives customers alternative ways to find items of interest beyond the site’s product categories. New, popular, or highly rated items are good “shop-by” attributes, but providing curated collections or outfits really helps replicate the in-store experience of showcasing items that go together. A good way to increase the customer experience further is to make sure featured collections have prominent links offering customers the opportunity to purchase each item separately, or the entire outfit or collection at once.

For example, J.Crew showcases coordinated outfits, providing style inspiration the same way dressed mannequins and shop windows do in-store:

In addition, highlighting coordinating or related items on product pages is a good way to expose customers to other items of potential interest. This cross-selling opportunity increases awareness of related products and guides customers to them, much in the way that an in-store display might catch a customer’s eye.

Sephora features “looks” and “collections” of products that customers can buy with a single click:

Nordstrom offers “Complete the Look” functionality on its product pages, highlighting coordinating items to wear with the viewed product:

2.) Product Detail

  • In-store: Customers can examine the fine details and feel the quality of product in person
  • Online recommendation: Provide detail view and robust zoom functionality.

In stores, customers have access to the minute details of products—the weight and texture of fabric, the configuration of input and output jacks or buttons on electronics, and the opportunity to inspect tags and labels up close. Online, customers don’t have the benefit of touching and feeling products the way they can in-store. While technology hasn’t brought us quite this far yet, there are ways that retailers can give customers a better sense of the details and qualities of products. Providing robust alternative views and zoom functionality on product pages helps capture some of the up-close detail that customers would have in-store: large, detailed images of the important aspects of the product, like fabric, fasteners, detailing, labeling, controls, etc. In addition, zoom functionality helps customers hone in on the details they’d like to view closer.

Piperlime features a robust and clearly-labeled Zoom functionality as well as an ample number of alternative views, allowing shoppers to get a clear idea of product details:

In one way, the online experience does offer one benefit customers don’t have available in the store—the ability to read package inserts, instructions, or to view videos that explain how items are installed, used, or configured.  Customers can learn a great deal about how to use products and get a greater level of detail about items before they head into a store.  Making thoughtful decisions about the additional information customers might want access to beyond what’s on a store shelf can be a key differentiator in customer satisfaction.

3.) Visual Representation

  • In-store: Seeing items in person gives a better sense of size, fit, scale, and weight than what can be communicated by online photos.
  • Online recommendation: Provide a sense of scale by using models, mannequins, or other props. In addition, provide the most detailed descriptions possible for products.

Without the benefit of seeing items in person, it can be hard to get a sense of the scale and fit of online items. Due to this disadvantage, customers end up returning items that weren’t quite what they expected.  So, giving customers the most realistic view possible can help prevent unexpected surprises on their part and lost revenue for the retailer.

First, to give customers the best sense of fit and scale, wearable products such as clothing, jewelry, and bags should be photographed on models or mannequins. This is the best way to provide customers with a realistic idea of size and fit. Blue Nile provides a sense of scale by showing jewelry on illustrated models, giving customers a better idea of how the piece will look in person when worn:

In addition, providing detailed product descriptions can help customers understand the fit, style, and fabrication. Is it fitted or loose? Light or heavy? Detailed descriptions can supplement quality product images to help customers get a more precise sense of what to expect. PacSun provides a detailed description of product fit and fabrication, noting details such as lining, length, stretch, and texture, as well as noting the model’s size for context:

Alternatively, why not have your customers fill in the blanks for you? Allowing and even encouraging them to write detailed reviews with specific scores for attributes like fit, help other customers decide if the product will work for them. Modcloth provides detailed reviews, allowing customers to rate specifics, such as fit, length/width, and quality. Some reviewers even offer specific details about their own measurements:

4.) Product Comparisons

  • In-store: Customers can compare similar options side-by-side.
  • Online recommendation: Provide comparison functionality to facilitate comparison.

Comparing similar items is an important way for shoppers to decide which will be right for them and is especially important when shopping for electronics or technology with particular specifications. In a store, customers might compare the products displayed side by side. Online, retailers can facilitate this same behavior by providing “Comparison” functionality. Comparison functionality provides an efficient and convenient way to perform a head-to-head comparison between similar products. Typically, sites should offer comparison of up to four or five different products. The page should display only those items selected by customers, with comparative data on important specifications that enables them to pick out the significant differences between items. Apple provides comparison charts for customers deciding between different, but similar, products, such as their variety of iPod models:

Best Buy allows customers to select up to 4 products to compare specs side-by-side:

5.) Customer Assistance

  • In-store: Customers who need assistance can immediately find an associate to help answer their questions.
  •  Online recommendation: In addition to email and phone customer service channels, provide “Live Chat” assistance for customers who want questions answered right away.

Sometimes customers have specific questions that can’t be answered by a list of frequently asked questions (FAQs). Even if you provide a customer service phone number, live chat best replicates the kind of service customers receive in-store—immediate, one-on-one interaction without the lag of email or hassle of calling. Ultimately, making sure contact information, including live chat functionality, is consistently and prominently displayed will ensure customers who need answers don’t have to search needlessly in order to get them.

L.L. Bean highlights its “Live Help” customer service throughout the site, including on product pages. Customers have the ability to contact customer service through live chat, email, or have a representative call them, rather than having to initiate a call and be put on hold:

Combining the benefits of in-store shopping with the convenience of online can make the overall online retail experience much more satisfying for customers, giving them the details and information they need to feel confident in completing their purchase.

Which online retailers do you think are doing the best job at replicating the in-store experience? Are there any additional e-retail features you’d like to see? We’d love to hear your feedback in the comments, or you can subscribe to my posts or The ForeSee Blog for more great posts on the art and science of measuring the customer experience.

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About the Author

Kathy Totz, ForeSee Senior Usability Analyst, conducts usability evaluations for financial services, retail, technology, telecommunications, and health care clients. She holds an MS in Information from the University of Michigan, specializing in Human-Computer Interaction. She also earned a BS in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Illinois Wesleyan University, where she published several peer-reviewed research studies.

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