Shoppers Seeking Perfect Retail Blend (On Consumers)

Today's smart consumer is first a researcher before becoming a shopper. Internet access to online stores and the online versions of bricks-and-mortar retailers have given smart shoppers the tools to not only compare prices, but also a variety of merchandise in similar categories.

What's more, consumers who have been missing in action during the recession are now more confident in their ability to make wise selections, as they search the Internet for the highest quality at the best price.

Internet use is evolving. Fewer consumers are "surfing," while more are targeting specific goods and services and using a targeted list to research products among various purveyors. This is called goal-directed buying. They know what they are looking for and will take the time to find out more before making a buying decision.

Consumer behavior surveys have indicated that the emotional motivator for savvy consumers is not only freedom and control, but a desire for more confidence in their purchases, as well as a feeling of greater self worth derived from taking the action of researching product, price, promotion and place before making a buying decision.

Understanding the desired shopping experience helps establish the difference between online and offline shopping. Online shoppers feel more in control of accessibility, convenience and information.

While they are interested in experiencing what a site has to offer, their primary reason for shopping online is comparing prices for the specific product or service they have in mind. "Let's go shopping" is not a phrase you would hear from online shoppers. "Let's go find the best deal on a blue cardigan sweater," however, is what an online shopper would say.

Offline shoppers are looking for more of an enjoyable, exciting and social experience. They want to have a relationship with the store and its brands. They want the sensory experience of atmosphere, visual stimulation and ambiance. While the online shopper wants freedom and control, the offline shopper wants fun and social fulfillment.

There is today a middle ground that can be experienced by online and offline shoppers alike. It is the blending of digitally accessing online stores and physically going to retail stores that incorporate an online component to their sales and marketing programs.

The future success of e-commerce is likely to find more of this third-way existence between traditional bricks-and-mortar stores and their ethereal counterparts. Since the profiles of the shoppers are a bit different, the intersection of online and offline will be an attempt to grow customers who are comfortable with both experiences.

The objective of large department stores, for instance, is to enhance their experience in online branding and email marketing.

A recent New York Times story reported that 111-year-old Nordstrom's department store had partnered with upstart Bonobos, a menswear brand sold exclusively online. Jamie Nordstrom, the great-grandson of the store's founder, said retailers had to be thinking about where growth was going to come from during the next 10 years. "[S]quare footage growth is not where that growth is coming from," he said.

In the new partnership, Nordstrom's will get the experience it needs for online selling, while Bonobos gains access to the sales floors of 100 stores.

But what will customers get? Not sure. What they want is a retail experience that bridges online information, control and convenience with the sights and sounds, touches and feels of social shopping.

Competitive pricing with free one-day shipping will help the former, while creating exciting online visual displays that promote the liveliness of retail shopping, along with customer critiques and recommendations, should embellish the latter. Plus, having fans, friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter extends retailers' reach into sociality. Give customers what they want where they are or where they want to be.

If the weekly emails from Dillard's, its blog, iPhone app and YouTube videos are any indication, our Arkansas-based department store chain is looking for growth in e-commerce as well.

(Craig Douglass is an advertising agency owner and partner with Zoe and Ernie Oakleaf in InFocus LLC, a Little Rock-based focus group research company. He can be reached at Craig@CraigDouglass.com.)