Online / Offline Integration and the Future of Retail
Business bloggers and experts have been pretty caught up with the workings of pure ecommerce in the last few years. They've been examining the effects of Amazon, ASOS, BlueNile and other companies that only work online. The new model is slowly shifting to a more integrated structure incorporating both online and offline strategies, according to Nic Brisbourne, a venture capitalist in London. At this point, it may be too early to describe the scope of online/physical retail hybrid companies, but we can start to see the trend popping up in companies that are expanding their online presence into the physical world and those physical stores that are expanding their presence in the virtual world.
Online Stores Venturing into the Physical World
Typically all-online company Net-a-Porter set up a pop-up shop last summer, for example. Essentially, the combination of online and physical presences is a little backwards from the way most businesses are used to operating. Instead of developing an online presence for a business that already exists in the physical world, integrated systems seek to become a little more physical than they have been in the past. Typically all-online companies such as ASDA are setting up stand-alone kiosks that allow consumers to make easy online orders via these points. The customer then returns to the collection point at one of four time slots to pick up the order. This integration addresses the customer's concern that ordering online won't get them the product they want in time.
Even Amazon is rumored to have similar plans for finding a life in the physical world. Telecrunch suggests Amazon would be smart to bring a Kindle store to a popular urban area. This would be kind of "third coming" for the store, which has already successfully brought itself to the physical world through Kindle. Setting up a physical shop would give Amazon a chance to "grab everyone else they have missed during the initial run up in Kindle popularity," according to Techcrunch's analysis.
Physical Companies Moving to More Online Maneuvering
On the flip side, physical retailers are making moves to be more integrated with an online presence. They continue to capitalize on the customer's comfort and ease of making returns and getting customer service, but they are also trying to compete with the more successful volume of their strictly online competitors. Companies such as Lowe's, for example, are developing web-to-store programs that allow customers to order online and pick up in the store. This way, the customer gets to peruse online but gets to avoid the cost of shipping and get customer service they wouldn't receive otherwise. Likewise, the customer doesn't have to worry about the difficulty of returning shipped items if something goes wrong.
Just when we get comfortable with the pros and cons of both online and offline retail options, innovation rears its disruptive and helpful head. Integration models address the downsides of keeping a business too fixedly in its online or offline box. The resulting hybrid could mean that the future might prove more convenient than we ever imagined.