How — and Why — Retailers are Integrating Offline and Online Channels for Omnichannel Success

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If you’re a brick-and-mortar retailer, an online store is no longer a nice-to-have; it’s essentially a must-have. Your customers need to be able to find you online. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has put the ecommerce imperative on sharp display when many brick-and mortar stores were forced to temporarily shut their doors. Having an online store was the only way forward.

Becky Sunseri, Founder and Chief Creative Office of beloved California ice-cream shop Tin Pot Creamery, felt this experience keenly:

“Overnight, COVID-19 changed our usual way of doing business and sped up the urgency of having an ecommerce enabled website. We couldn’t have customers in our stores, where we were making 95% of our sales. So, we had to move those sales online, which has become a really important channel for us to sell to customers across the country.” 

Tin Pot embraced selling online because it isn’t just a temporary fix during an unprecedented global event, but a long-term strategy that is enabling the brand to reach a much wider audience.

Customers are increasingly shopping online. Despite a challenging year for retail in general, eMarketer estimates that ecommerce sales grew 27.6% in 2020 for a total of $4.28 trillion. For 2021,they predict a more modest — but still significant — worldwide ecommerce growth of 14.3%. 

Combining online and offline retail efforts in your business plan has the power to amplify reach and sales. Think of it as another stream of revenue for your existing stores — or a back-up plan if your customers are unable to purchase on a specific channel.

Beyond just having an online store, it’s important to make the effort to integrate it into an overall retail strategy. As customers are shopping more omnichannel than ever, providing a seamless, frictionless experience across channels can give you a competitive edge. 

In this article, we’ll cover why offline stores are moving online and how to integrate your brick-and-mortar and ecommerce stores to better serve your customers. We’ll also look at some offline brands that are seeing great success after expanding online.

Why Brick-and-Mortar Stores Are Moving Online

Depending on your business needs, there may be many different reasons to add an ecommerce layer to your business.

As touched on above, ecommerce is growing, and that growth isn’t going away any time soon. 

In the U.S. alone, online retail sales are expected to reach over $476 billion by 2024.

With online sales making up a growing share of the overall retail market, there is no better time to enter the ecommerce world.

Beyond just capitalizing on a growing market, there are many advantages to adding ecommerce to your business.

Here are two added perks to a multichannel approach:

1. Insights.

Your ecommerce platform can provide you with many different data points.

Identifying specific metrics (with goal setting) will help you learn from these insights and make real-time changes to your store. 

This data, like product page views or time spent on your site, gives you direct insight into your customers’ experience. Keep in mind integrations with other ecommerce technology (e.g. your POS system) can also provide additional customer insights. By taking advantage of this real-time information, you’ll be able to build an experience that boosts brand loyalty and affinity.

2. Be where your customers are (and reach new ones).

Ecommerce meets your customers where they are. Not only does this make it easier for them to do business with you, it also enables you to create a personalized experience.

You also provide a better customer experience by providing options. Customers can buy online and pick up their orders in-store (BOPIS) or have them delivered to their homes according to their preference and on their schedule. They can place orders from mobile devices. You can also give customers the option of in-person returns, reducing your return shipping costs.

In addition, by being available to all who roam the internet, your business will be exposed to more potential customers and demographics.

How to Integrate Your Offline and Online Stores

In their journey to purchase, your customers may interact with both your brick-and-mortar and your online store to say nothing of other channels you may have like social media and marketplaces.

The key to providing a good customer experience is to make sure their interaction across all touchpoints is consistent. Make it easy for customers to shop with you through whatever channel or channels work best for them. Provide information about your website to customers who walk in. And make sure your website clearly outlines where your physical stores are located. 

Now let’s look at the how. Whether you’re completely new to ecommerce or you’re looking to breathe fresh life into your existing site, here are some strategies to make the most of your online store and keep growing across channels. 

This is not an exhaustive how-to create an ecommerce site (for that, check out this article), but rather some key strategies that can help you refine your offline to online strategy.

1. Use one system for multiple channels.

Major brick-and-mortar stores can utilize their existing logistics networks for their new ecommerce site

Integration of online and offline sales portals is, undoubtedly, the major challenge of successfully running a brick-and-click store. Inventory, in particular, must be kept in sync to prevent overselling or underselling. If a single inventory is drawn from, a non-available item could be accidentally sold, but if separate inventories are used, an available item could needlessly sit in stock.

In general, use of a single integrated point-of-sale system (POS) for both online and offline components of the store is the best solution. It needs to be an automated, real-time system that syncs inventory across all channels to streamline and simplify accounting processes.

2. Keep expanding to new channels.

One tenant of moving offline to online: You don’t have to stop at just having a brick-and-mortar and online store. The online sphere has many channel opportunities to pursue. The more you expand your reach, the more new customers you can access. 

Here are a few avenues to consider:

Social media.

Social media serves a few different purposes: connecting with customers and telling your brand story and serves as an easy way for customers to shop your products (e.g., shopping on Instagram).

There are plenty of social media platforms to choose from: Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, LinkedIn, TikTok, Pinterest…the list goes on. 

Identifying the right channel for your business will depend on your target audience. Remember, you want to be where your customers are.

Online marketplaces.

While your main focus for online sales should be on your own ecommerce store, many online retailers also expand their presence to online marketplaces.

What are online marketplaces? These are ecommerce sites that offer many different products from many different sellers. Chances are you do business with them frequently as a consumer.

Here are a few of the most popular ones:

  • Amazon,
  • eBay,
  • Walmart,
  • Etsy,
  • Alibaba.com, and
  • Google Express.

If you decide to expand your business to an online marketplace, focus on the ones that make the most sense for your brand. This will vary from business to business and depend on factors such as marketplace fees, requirements for sellers and top-performing categories. 

Of course, as your business scales across multiple marketplaces, it’s worth exploring your opportunities with inventory management software. Such a system will automatically synchronize your stock levels and in turn remove the risk of overselling and underselling.

Comparison shopping engines.

Customers are not shy to do their own research when looking to purchase a specific product.

This is why being informed about comparison shopping engines is essential.

Comparison shopping engines are websites that enable customers to search for a product and compare its quality, price and shipping rate at multiple competing online retailers.

Popular websites include:

  • Shopzilla
  • Shopping.com, which is owned by eBay, and
  • Google Shopping, which is integrated into Google Ads.

To have your products posted on one of these websites, you’ll have to check the requirements of each option. You can expect to:

  • Pay specific fees,
  • Submit the required, quality product content (e.g., descriptions, images), and
  • List your own products.

3. Provide fulfillment options.

In addition to providing a number of shipping speeds and costs: give customers visiting your online an opportunity to pick up their merchandise (or return it) at your physical locations. 

BOPIS and curbside pickup are two ways you can increase foot traffic to your brick-and-mortar locations while also providing convenience to your customers. 

You can also offer ship from store options and use your physical location inventory to fulfill orders for customers who don’t want to visit in person.

4. Bring digital tech to the physical store.

For a while, the focus in ecommerce has been on how to recreate the offline shopping experience online through augmented reality and videos to help customers feel like they’re experiencing the products in person. However, an emerging trend is also in adding some of the advantages of online shopping to the physical world.

Previously, shopping in-store was seen as an experience, and shopping online was viewed purely for the convenience it could offer. Now we’re seeing the reverse is true: people want their in-store experience to be as streamlined as possible. 

To that end stores are adding digital technologies including digital signage that customers can interact with to find what they need faster and contactless checkout. The latter especially gained popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic and the age of social distancing. According to research by Shekel in April 2020, 87% of customers said they would prefer to shop in stores with contactless checkout. 

Finding ways to update your physical store to provide a more modern experience, even if that’s just investing in an integrated POS system, can offer an easier buying experience both offline and on.

5. Make it mobile.

When considering how you can better leverage technology to provide a friction-free experience across in-store and online, look no further than Starbucks. 

In 2015, the popular coffee chain launched a mobile app that allows customers to order and pay ahead and pick up their food and drink when they arrive. In fact, in the first quarter of 2020,17% of Starbucks orders  came from the mobile app. Clearly, Starbucks customers are embracing the convenience of having their coffee already crafted and ready to go when they are. 

Starbucks isn’t the only brand seeing customers making purchases on the go. Mobile ecommerce in the U.S. was projected to bring in $314 billion in 2020, which is 44% of total ecommerce sales.

You don’t have to have a native app to be successful, but you do need to make sure your ecommerce site works well on mobile devices.

Examples of Successful Offline to Online Merchants

When planning your next big retail expansion, it can be helpful to see what other trailblazers have done before you. Here are some examples of businesses that started offline, but who now have thriving online channels as well.

1. Lammes Candies.

A legacy Austin, Texas brand, this candy company has five brick-and-mortar locations — and a booming online business.

With an increasing number of candy companies entering the market and competition on the rise, having a modern, robust ecommerce website was essential. The Lammes team sought out to create an online presence that was both relevant, authentic, and true to their brand.

Listen to Lauren Cevallos, Ecommerce and Mail Order Manager, talk about their transition to powering a successful ecommerce store with BigCommerce.



2. TYLER’S.

TYLER’S began in 1978 in Tyler, Texas, as a store specializing in tennis and running gear.

Since then, TYLER’S has grown to become a leading specialty retailer selling apparel, footwear and accessories across its nine locations in Texas.

When they made the move online, TYLER’S worked to enhance their customer experience with easier retargeting on Facebook and Instagram, improved navigation and on-site search, email marketing capabilities and fraud protection.



3. Sara Campbell.

Sara Campbell is a luxury fashion brand based in Boston, Massachusetts. They were operating solely through their 26 brick-and-mortar store around the country until the COVID-19 pandemic forced closures. They responded to the challenge by quickly building an online store, which has turned into a valuable channel for the brand. 

As Courtney Harris, Director of Operations at Sara Cambell explains: “BigCommerce has paved the path for us to grow through our new channel of selling. We are very glad we made the jump to online selling, it came at a time when we needed it the most!” 

You can hear more about their journey as told by Ethan Giffan of Groove Commerce, who facilitate the launch:


Conclusion

Traditionally offline retailers are finding success as online sales gain more share of sales, year after year.

By combining offline and online channels, you set your store up for increased reach, added convenience for customers and a competitive edge in a saturated market.

FAQ for Online to Offline Retailers

What are the advantages of adding an ecommerce website to your brick-and-mortar business?

Creating an online store to expand your offline store(s) provides a number of advantages. The online store can give you increased insights into your customers and also expanded reach. You can be everywhere your customers are and provide added convenience. Ultimately having an offline and online presence can make your business more competitive and adaptable.

Do you need an ecommerce platform to build an online store?

The answer really depends on your developer resources; however, by and large while it is technically possible to build an online store yourself, in most cases it makes sense to go with an ecommerce platform. A pre-built ecommerce platform can save you time and money because it already has the ecommerce features you need.

What are the most important factors to consider when choosing an ecommerce platform?

Like most retail business decisions, what works for one business may not be right for another. You need to assess your individual business needs to determine what is most valuable in an ecommerce platform. That said, here are some good questions to ask yourself: 

Do I want my platform to include hosting or do I want to host it? How much maintenance am I prepared to handle? What features will I need? Are those specific features included in the base platform or will I need to pay for additional third-party solutions? What will be the total cost of owning and maintaining the platform and all extensions? Does the platform integrate with the other technology my business uses?

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What technology is important for connecting my offline and online stores?

Ideally any technology you use in your offline business that you are happy with should be able to sync with your online store. Particularly relevant technologies might include your POS system, inventory management system and warehouse management system.

How can I integrate my ecommerce platform and POS system?

Before you choose an ecommerce platform, you first want to confirm that it can integrate with your existing POS system.Setting up your POS system to integrate with your ecommerce platform will depend on which solutions you’re using for both. You may be able to set up the integration yourself, or you might need customer support to help you.

What new channels should I consider for expanding my online presence?

You don’t need to limit yourself to just an offline and online store. You can also sell your products on social media, in marketplaces and through comparison shopping engines. 

Do your research to determine if a particular channel might appeal to your audience of potential customers.

How can I integrate by offline and online experiences?

As customers are shopping more omnichannel than ever, it makes sense to provide a clear connection between your offline and online brand. There are a number of ways you can bridge your online and offline stores to provide a better customer experience. They include adding fulfillment options like BOPIS and curbside, including more digital technology in your physical store and providing a clean mobile experience. Wherever and however your customers shop with you, you want to make it a friction-free experience for them.

How do you launch a BOPIS offering?

In order to offer BOPIS to your customers, you first need an ecommerce site, at least one physical store and an inventory management solution. If you have multiple stores, it’s important to provide a solution that can give customers inventory visibility across all of your locations in real-time.

What are the advantages of offering BOPIS?

As a strategy for integrating your offline and online stores, BOPIS has a number of advantages for both customers and retailers. When a customer enters your physical store to collect their order, they may impulse buy other items increasing their overall order value. Even if you offer curbside pickup where they never come inside your store, the convenience your brand is offering to customers can give you a competitive advantage.

From the customer perspective, BOPIS can give them the convenience of online shopping and knowing their item is in stock, but the added advantage of getting their order same-day.

Why invest in an integrated POS system?

A POS software package makes it possible to integrate your offline store with your online store. POS software is usually packaged with compatible hardware for your brick-and-mortar business. The POS system can link to your ecommerce platform. It can also usually connect to customer service, inventory management, accounting and more from a single program.

Why should I update my POS hardware?

Providing sleek modern POS hardware in store can improve your customer experience and also potentially give you the option to provide contactless or low-contact checkout. It can also make it easier to connect and manage inventory with your online store.

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