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The role of the retail store in today’s digital age is changing, but it still plays an important step in the overall O2O customer purchase journey

Online to offline (O2O), bricks & clicks, etail… we all have our strategies to bring customers from the online world into physical shops. It starts with data harvested online to engage the consumer in a shopping experience and then works on pushing them down the funnel to purchase.

This process is infused with technology, but trends continue to evolve as retailers react to changes in shoppers’ needs and behaviour, and we, the marketers, adapt and keep up.

A testament to these disruptive changes can be seen in the fall in retail sales all over the world: this year the UK saw a 0.7% drop in retail sales, according to the British Retail Consortium. In the United States, Germany, Hong Kong and China, it’s a similar scenario. For most of these large economies, this downturn in retail is a response to major changes in consumer purchasing behaviour.

I have previously touched on technology as an enabler to O2O, alongside case studies around the new O2O innovations coming out of Asia in the retail sector.

In all of this, where does the role of the physical shop come into play in the ecommerce journey today? And how does this help us as marketers, think about how to design the best shopping experiences for our customers?

1. The shop as a social meeting place

In today’s digital era, where it is all centred around convenience, why would we bother going to shops if we can find what we are looking for online? Traffic, geography, weather, and all sorts of other obstacles make online shopping so much more convenient. Even when we do make it to (Read more...) physical store, there’s still a chance they’ll have run out of stock.

Evolutionary psychologists will argue that our behaviour as human beings is very much embedded in our genes going all the way back to our time as homo sapiens when we lived as hunter-gatherers. Then, we lived in small social groups with high levels of interaction.

In this context, the shop becomes a place to meet, to interact, to learn about the products and the culture of the brand, and to become a part of the surrounding community and culture. The shop today is changing its role from a place where we buy more products, to an experience that invites us to spend more time with the brand and interact with the products as part of the buying cycle, rather than the only buying cycle.


In May, Apple began launching new designs for its retail stores to support high levels of interaction and to further act as a point of social gathering.

The Apple Union Square design launched in San Francisco includes:

  • The Avenue is a collection of interactive walls showing Apple products and services including music, creativity tools, apps and photography. Experts offer advice at each of the displays. The store is also fitted with “Only at Apple” products – a collection of third-party accessories.
  • The Genius Grove allows customers to get technical support while working under a canopy of trees in the heart of the store.
  • The Forum centres around a 6K video wall – showcasing artists, photographers, musicians, gamers, developers and entrepreneurs in the hope of inspiring customers. Apple is tapping its future customer base by offering special programs for kids, monthly events for teachers, and sessions for current and aspiring developers.
  • The Boardroom lets small businesses get advice on app development in a business social setup.

These specialized stores will be open 24-hours a day and include access to public Wi-Fi.

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*Apple’s Union Square, San Francisco

What’s important here, is the access customers have to touch, feel, and try (read: experience) the product in a stress free environment (minus the “are you looking for something specific” questions.)

Angela Ahrendts, Apple’s SVP of retail and online services says: “We are not just evolving our store design, but its purpose and greater role in the community as we educate and entertain visitors and serve our network of local entrepreneurs.”

It’s time to rethink the role of the physical shops, and the experience you want to leave with your customers. As Apple demonstrates, the retail shop can be a meeting point for social interactions with your brand.

2. The online space as a hunting ground

If offline should be designed as the social commune next to the campfire – where we gather and exchange stories and experiences – the role of the online shop is to ‘get things done’.

Your customers have already experienced your brand in store. So now the online focus should be on products, prices and delivery. This should all be implemented with the easiest and fastest processes allowing the customer to find what they want, understand the specifications and pay.

Apple, long considered the leader in omnichannel marketing, is a good example of this with its Apple Store app.


To forge a truly great O2O customer journey, post-purchase customer service needs to be considered here too.

UPS research has found retailers who nudge people into picking up from, and returning to, a local store can gain significant additional revenue.

It’s such a simple idea, and harvesting such low-hanging fruit enables your customers to get straight back to the campfire and talk with real people about their returns, which in turn provides an opportunity to cross- and up-sell.

It’s therefore imperative to design ecommerce processes in a way that encourage customers to have a real-time interaction. That could include directing them to the nearest shop to discuss the issues with real people.

Again, Apple’s website is a good demonstration of this:


3. How the online and offline roles can be merged into a complete shopping experience

Many retailers judge their shop’s performance by the turnover they produce, without taking into account the retail store’s full contribution to online sales. After all, this kind of attribution can be hard to measure. But it may be time to start looking at physical shops as service and experience outlets as much as they are retail ones.

A good starting point is ensuring retail and ecommerce teams share the same goals. Work together on the customer experience and business flows instead of operating in silos.

Building the bigger picture can take time, but the long term rewards are greater customer loyalty and, over time, increased sales. And Apple remains the premium example of this.

*Featured image: Apple Store, Istanbul

Future of the Retail Customer Journey: A Marketer’s Guide

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