Enhancing (Not Replacing) the In-Store Experience

Are there things we shouldn’t bother making an effort to sell online? Research I just completed makes me think so. But that doesn’t mean the Web isn’t a critical part of the sales decision, even if the actual transaction occurs elsewhere.

When we look back at the dot-com carnage of the last couple of years, among the biggest flops in the e-commerce space were furniture companies. Way back when, Furniture.com blew through tens of millions trying to get people to buy couches, lamps, and tables on the Web. It didn’t work. The company went kablooey in a big way.

Although there’s plenty of evidence to point to the fact bad financial management had a lot to do with its demise, one of its main problems was people just didn’t want to buy furniture solely online. Buying a couch isn’t like buying a book. A good part of the decision-making process is sitting on the couch, feeling the fabric, testing the heft of the construction: actual, physical experience.

Plenty of other e-commerce categories suffered the same fate. Many luxury-item and high-end-jewelry startups died timely deaths. High-end fashion sites such as Boo.com went boom (though Boo has been resurrected and rolled into fashionmall.com). Repeatedly, Web users have demonstrated there’s just some stuff they’ve got to touch and feel before they’ll shell out the big bucks.

On the other hand, Internet-generated automotive sales (car sales driven by Web-based referrals) have skyrocketed. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that few industries have been as radically changed by the Web as the automotive industry. Few people actually buy cars sight-unseen from the Web. Nope, most research shows the majority of buyers research their cars online before going into dealerships.

J.D. Powers has found fully 60 percent of new car shoppers research online and 88 percent of them visit automotive sites before taking a test drive. The online experience has become such an integral part of the car-buying process, it can actually influence whether someone buys a particular model. An April 2002 study by Vividence found 31 percent of car buyers won’t buy a car if they’ve had a negative experience on an automotive site.

Why? The Web does something that previously was next to impossible: It gives consumers a safe, anonymous place in which to gather information on an information-driven purchase. Of course, lots of emotional elements are at work, too (something the Web can enhance), but the real driver (pun intended) is information available online. Few, if any, people would do the entire transaction exclusively online. The physical experience is a vital part of the process. But most do their shopping there first.

How does this fit with the research I just conducted? Here’s the story: We’re pitching a large home décor account. We did a quick survey of about 200 consumers to determine how they made decisions about what decorating products they put into their homes. What we found was actually very similar to what’s happening in the automotive world. These consumers did research online or in print media first then went to the store to experience these products firsthand. It was amazing to me most people had fairly negative reactions to buying home decorating products online. They felt the Web just couldn’t replace going in and seeing, touching, and using the products.

They weren’t ready to write off the Web altogether. No way. In fact, the most dissatisfaction they reported with home decorating products had nothing to do with the products themselves. They complained about the quality of information about those products. They wanted comparison tools, care information, installation instructions, and design ideas and tools to help them save time doing the leg work of going from store to store to make selections.

In a nutshell, these consumers wanted to shop online and buy in the store.

I have to point out this survey wasn’t exactly scientific and probably wouldn’t stand up to rigorous statistical interrogation. It wasn’t meant to. But the results ring true because they point out something most of us know intuitively: There’s nothing like touching the product to get the “gotta have it” juices flowing.

The lesson from this research and trends in the automotive industry is this: Often we should work toward enhancing, not replacing, the in-store experience for our clients. For commodity products (or those easily demonstrated online, such as music), the Web can do a great job of taking a sale from start to finish. For others, where the physical experience of the product is an integral part of the sales decision, we should look to the Web to provide the information and support that helps seal the deal.

Not only does an informed customer make a better customer, but a customer supported after the sale is one who will keep coming back.

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