Blending the Online/Offline Experience

May 29, 2017

With pundits predicting strong online retail sales this Christmas and some predicting as much as 60 per cent of the online spend will be through smartphones[1], one wonders why you would even ponder leaving the couch.

However, as quick and easy as online shopping has become, the true winners this holiday season and for the long term will be retailers that know the customer intimately and that can be adaptable both online and offline to meet the changing customer needs and desires. And the reason for this comes down to human interaction and the transformation from functional to experience-based activity.

Increasingly, the ability to connect to our favourite brands digitally is a vital precursor to a physical retail experience. A physical shop that doesn’t support customers’ online experience will be less competitive compared to an integrated offer. A complete view of all the customer touch points is essential. At Warren and Mahoney, we are finding that customers, especially in service retail, are using the web to ‘pre load’ and digest the information online before they experience the physical space. This empowers the customer to have a more informed pre-purchase discussion with a retailer.

At a recent retail conference in London, we were presented with multiple retail typologies from fashion stores to service providers and car dealerships. The theme was consistent – the online on boarding and corresponding in store experience replication was vital to a customer’s holistic experience. The extension of service was very clear.

Not only are customers utilising the online digital channels to research products and services, but it is also an important gauge of a brands alignment to their lifestyle, ideals and personal connections.

[1] Armando Roggio, Practical Ecommerce


One example of the importance of physical vs virtual can be observed with the ubiquitous Nespresso brand, which has successfully stormed into our standard household vernacular.

Why would you ever go out to a café for an expensive latte when you can make an equally great coffee at home? One of the reasons we want to go to cafes is because we want an experience, an interaction, great service and the social connection. The social connection of retail is in our DNA; markets and transactions are a physical part of our experience as humans. There is also exponential growth in online shopping, which is now supported by more complex wide ranging retail experiences. One example of this is the Ted Baker store in Shoreditch, London where you can get a new outfit plus a haircut and a coffee. A physical experience mash up. It’s these interactions and connections that drive the experience.

It is essential for the customer to be able to navigate between the two worlds seamlessly, that both display the same messages, ease of use and atmosphere. It is not a situation of either/or; most customers will utilise both retail environments. The physical retail environment doesn’t sit independently from the graphic branding, staff training, the website or security in this new world of retail. Architecture is a component of the total encounter, which is why it is simplistic to separate out the retail design from the online experience.

And the approach has to be about the customer experience. It’s the desired experience -what you want the customers to think, feel, do will inform both the physical and virtual design. And it’s the customers’ interaction with the people who work there that will give them a really good experience. The physical or online design really just facilitates that.

I encourage my clients to be brave and bold. Online commerce allows for a brand to try new techniques and approaches quickly, and retailers must embrace new ways to make the in-store experience just as appealing. Steve Jobs designed the packaging of the iPhone so the tactile touch when opening it created vibrations and shivers that closely matched feelings of euphoria. What experience are you creating for your customers that blend both offline and online?

Gareth Huston is a Principal at Warren and Mahoney. Huston’s expertise lies in the alignment of physical environments and the end-user experience through evidence-based design. This strategic thinking applies to all types of commercial design disciplines from retail through to master planning.

A strategic, research-led understanding of how customers interact with retail touch-points in both virtual and physical environments allows him and the team to design memorable experiences that resonate with the customer.