The limitations of in store digital

The retail industry is in disarray, reeling from the blows of e-commerce, changes in tastes, expectations and income distribution. Malls and department stores are closing, the experience at surviving venues is often depressing and frustrating, and even worse, for many brands the web is not making up for lost sales.

How can we modernize our surviving stores, particularly profitable flagships? Since we live in what seems like constant technological change, it might seem only logical to apply some of that technology in our stores, for instance:

Virtual mannequins: as the customer picks up items, they are modeled on a display.

Augmented reality: the customer can see more info about the products she’s browsing on her phone.

NFC (Near Field Communication): The customer can tap her phone to view more product info and purchase the item.

Browser hubs: displays show related product info, like other customer’s reviews.

Virtual reality: the customer can see items as they would look on her.


The problem is that all this technology misses the biggest change brought by the web:

1. Customers are taking their purchase decisions before even entering a store,

2. thanks to info from other consumers;

3. and then finish their purchase online, from the comfort of their home or office.

In other words no matter how novel the technology, our brand remains out of the loop. While this change in customer behavior does not yet apply to 100% of all customer segments, it is inexorably growing and cannot be stopped, and is changing not only how customers shop but also what they shop for.

The solution.

Should we throw in the towel and close all brick and mortar stores? If we continue along the current path the decision might be taken off our hands with dwindling sales and an expensive channel, so change is clearly necessary.

To have any impact our projects need to help us participate when customers take their decision, which is why it’s more useful to think of web projects rather than digital or technological projects or online and physical stores: a web of consumers who happen to be connected via certain technologies, in which we need to participate. Technology is necessary but insufficient by itself.

To understand the role physical stores can play, we need to integrate them into our customer’s quest and establish the specific value they can deliver.

a. We need to accept that our customer’s quest starts online, not at the store: it’s a question of convenience and expectations; to integrate our stores we need to establish specific answers they can still provide more effectively, such as sizing, accurate colours, combinations, textures; and, critically, when to provide this connection.

b. Instead of depending on dwindling local traffic, we need to visualize the much larger general online and offline traffic and give the customer new reasons to search or browse at the store: is everyone who is looking for our product finding us? Is everyone with a goal in mind for which our product is relevant finding us?  For instance if our product responds to a specific quest (“I need new shoes”) and we know the customer can only visit during her lunch hour, we can make it easier by pointing out nearby food venues, the time to get to and from, the health advantages of walking after lunch by browsing at out store, and make the quest more productive by narrowing down the styles the customer might be interested in, matched to the styles and sizes available at the store.

c. Only once we are participating in our customer’s purchase decision and  integrated the store into our customer’s quest does it make sense to make search at stores themselves easier and more productive. We will then be in a position to evaluate the technologies we mentioned at the beginning: do they contribute any meaningful value to our customer and to us, or are they merely a superfluous tech veneer? Do they let us understand what our customer is looking for? Do they take advantage of our customer’s willingness to contribute to the experience of other customers?


There’s life yet in brick and mortar stores, but they will need to be rethought and repurposed, within the context of our customer’s larger quest and changing expectations. Throwing more technology at them does not address the main effects of the web on our business, makes the channel more expensive, and takes away resources where they are most needed.