by Russell Loarridge, Director, ReachFive 

The retail winners of 2020 and early 2021 have enjoyed a phenomenal rise in online sales. But this is not a time for complacency. Consumers moved online because they had no choice. Consumers haven’t flocked online because it is an enjoyable experience. It isn’t.

At its best, online retail is slick and efficient, with a focus on ease of checkout and speed of delivery.  But this isn’t what consumers will remember. These are, in fact, simply prerequisite table stakes. Rather, it is the quality of the shopping experience – the way a good Store Associate interacts with customers – that people remember and will bring them back again and again. And retailers need to start thinking about that experience online.

As the high street reopens, will people continue to shop if online retail remains a purely transactional activity?  Russell Loarridge, Director, ReachFive insists it is time for retailers to bring back the joy and that means rethinking the online customer experience.

Convenience versus Leisure

Consumers were forced to adopt online shopping in the last 18 months – and there is no doubt that many have appreciated the convenience. But they are also noticing the lack of joy offered by online shopping. People are pining for the high street – and not just the chance to touch and feel products. They are missing that warm feeling associated with a good shopping experience.

Yes, online shopping works – in the main – but it is not fun. And retailers need to remember that shopping is not just about convenience; for many, many consumers shopping is a leisure pursuit. Online is likely to remain a habit until consumer confidence returns.  But unless retailers start to reconsider how they interact with their customers, there is a risk that shopping will become nothing more than a necessary evil, a functional transaction to acquire goods.

It is essential to change the mindset because somewhere along the way retailers have lost sight of what their online customers actually want.

Stop Guessing, Just Ask

How has the gap between online and physical retail become so wide? In store, an experienced manager will greet customers as they walk in with a smile and a ‘Can I help you?’. Nothing more – no requests for email addresses or phone numbers. No demands to sign up for offers or newsletters.  They can see at a glance a customer’s gender and age bracket. Shopping bags give a clue to previous purchases; while clothes suggest style preferences and if a customer asks for help will direct them straight to the most relevant items.

Online retail in contrast is all about capturing data – but none of the data that provides any of that insight into the customer’s interests or preferences. Retailers are spending a fortune on measuring every step of the customer’s online journey and analysing in extraordinary detail in a bid to guess what they might want next. Retailers are badgering online customers for email addresses and postal addresses – hoping to draw conclusions about wealth and buying habits from complex analytics.

Why? How is this information being used to improve the customer experience? It isn’t. It is rarely accurate and, with the exception of Amazon’s multi-million pound investment in its own recommendation engine, often disturbingly irrelevant. Why not just ask?

Better than In-Store

There is an opportunity for online retailers to create a truly relevant, personalised experience – one that could be even better than in store.  Right now, few physical retail operations are set up to proactively contact customers when new products come in that they may like. But that is simple online.

If a retailer has asked the customer for their preferences (and why wouldn’t a customer provide this information if they understand how it will be used to make their experience better?), the email will say: ‘Our new range has a green silk shirt we think you will love.’ Top value customers could even have their preferred size put aside virtually for a couple of days before the new range is made available to the entire customer base.  That is a good quality retail experience.


COVID-19 triggered a fundamental change in shopping behaviour and while consumer confidence in the high street still wavers, this online-first mentality looks likely to remain. But the pandemic has also highlighted the stark difference between the online and physical shopping experience.

The impersonal online experience is never going to inspire customer loyalty. Even worse, it has removed the joy from shopping, moving retail from a leisure pursuit that allows retailers to entice customers with up- and cross-sales to a dull, functional, even duty activity. And that will not sustain retail in the long term.

The technology exists to move online retail closer to the high street experience. Customer identity and access management; content platforms; recommendation engines. The technology is not the barrier. The barrier is retail mindset. And while retailers remain focused on improving the quality of the online transaction – the checkout and the delivery – customers will continue to be disappointed.

Online retail has to change – and that requires embracing a truly personal shopping experience.

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