The evolution of showrooming for omni-channel retail

Showrooming, long feared by retailers with physical stores, can be advantageous when fully embraced

Showrooming is a phrase that has been long-feared among many brick-and-mortar retailers. Yet today, more and more retailers are embracing it to the benefit of both themselves and their customers.

Used to refer to when consumers use physical stores as a showroom while they search and discover the same product for a lower price on their smartphones - likely purchasing from a digital-only competitor without the same overheads. It’s a trend Amazon has undoubtedly capitalised on - the barcode search that’s been a feature in their main app for many years is proof of that.

But while feared, showrooming is a trend that's only going to get more common as tech-savvy in-store consumers become the norm. Recent research from Conversant shows that younger generations are more likely to be showrooming. A whopping 78% of shoppers under 35-years-old shop both in-store and online simultaneously, and are 34% more likely than older customers to use a mobile device in a store.

However, that's not necessarily bad news. Depending on how retailers manage showrooming, it can either be a hindrance or a blessing.

The inner-city showroom

Take Ikea. With the long-held model of merging shop and warehouse in huge out-of-town buildings, over the last few years, the Swedish retailer has begun its march towards the city centre. In London, Aberdeen and Norwich, the flat-pack furniture retailer has opened up smaller order and collection points - customers can visit the store to view display products before ordering either on their mobiles or via the self-service digital terminals. There’s no restaurant to get a plate of meatballs, but shoppers can touch, feel and measure furniture before arranging for easy home delivery, while Ikea doesn’t need to pay the vast inner city costs for land that it otherwise would need to for its regular store format.

Ikea is perhaps a more extreme example, whereby the cost savings to the business of locating their often large-sized stock outside of a city centre are huge. However, other brands are embracing the showrooming phenomenon too, spurred in part by the nigh-on limitless inventory possibilities.

The store of the future

Zara’s new flagship store in London features "digital technology that integrates the online and offline shopping experiences,” according to Drapers. In practice, this means that shoppers can collect same-day orders, with a robotic arm fulfilling an order in mere seconds. Interactive mirrors detect which products customers are holding, displaying a model wearing those same clothes with complimentary styles and garments. Most noteworthy, customers have the option of paying within the Zara app for their purchases, or via an assistant armed with an iPad.

The point of purchase is a significant benefit here, with digital allowing brands like Zara, and its parent company Inditex, to tie offline and online consumer-brand interactions, building a single customer view for everyone who shops with them. And with almost every consumer in possession of their own digital point of purchase - no queueing needed - accompanied with access to a vast range of variants to the products they can see, touch and try-on in-store, it’s a benefit for consumers too.

The friction in getting hold of exactly the right product is minimised for the consumer, while Zara gets valuable insights into who its consumers are, and how they interact with the brand.

Of course, e-receipts, competitions, and loyalty schemes all offer similar insight for brands, albeit perhaps with lower consumer uptake than Zara’s approach. It’s entirely possible for brands to tie online and offline without investing in a shiny new, digital-first flagship store. However, Zara’s example is of a high street brand jumping head-first into the future of retail - a future that's omni-channel, data-first, and is approaching us all very, very fast.

Important to note is that it's not merely a case of high street stores embracing digital - it's retailers of all backgrounds evolving to better represent the omni-channel environment their customers exist in. Digital-first retail brands, for example, have also capitalised on the showrooming trend.

Digital-first stores with offline showrooms

Furniture retail brand Made.com has three physical showrooms in very carefully chosen locations; Soho London, Birmingham’s prestigious Mailbox and the boutique interiors area of Redbrick in Batley, West Yorkshire. All areas with high footfall, these locations offer Made.com’s customers the ability to 'try before you buy’, leveraging fabric samples and touch screens to explore the full product range, alongside display rooms made up from the brand’s furniture.

Just like Zara and Ikea, Made.com's customers are enabled to try in-store and buy online, but certainly not limited to that. All three retailers understand that the customer funnel can begin or end offsite and that each of their customers has unique wants and needs when spending with them.

What is important is being able to track consumer interactions with those brands, so that you know which activities are and aren't generating sales, and in the case of showrooming - that you understand how consumers are interacting with the brand during their path to purchase.

The same research from Conversant shows that 58% of consumers start researching products online and complete their purchase in-store, while 46% of consumers start in-store and purchase online. Consumer paths to purchase have never been linear, but with more and more potential touchpoints, they are a great deal more varied than ever before.

The showrooming phenomenon is yet one more avenue for some consumers on their larger path to purchase. To seize the opportunity around these brick-and-mobile engagements, brands need an online experience that enhances in-store device activity and a fully-measured marketing strategy that also complements it.

Fashion retailer Scotch & Soda - with strong offline and online presence - employed personalised, one-to-one display media in order to keep their brand top of mind for the consumer. This strategy achieved incremental return of 5.5:1 - £5.50 return for every £1 spent. Read how.

Read the case study

Written by Conversant's SVP of Media, Elliott Clayton, this article was first published on WARC.

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