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What Your Online Store Can Learn From The High Street
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In April 2019, journalists in the US reported that, for the first time, eCommerce spending had surpassed high-street takings. Whilst the reality was far more complicated, it seems that most experts have picked a winner in the fight between the internet and the high street. However, the relationship between traditional retail and digital commerce is neither as competitive nor as one-sided as has been suggested. Moreover, understanding the advantages offered by the shop floor can seriously enhance your eCommerce strategy.

ecommerce strategy

Brick wall stores are here to stay, and they do a number of things far better than their digital counterparts. This article outlines 5 eCommerce strategies based on consumer behaviour and the psychology of the shop floor.

The advantages of real-world stores become more obvious when you start to think about consumer behaviour. The psychological phenomena associated with traditional shops are often neglected online. The eCommerce strategies outlined below provide ways to recreate retail experiences in a virtual environment. Firstly, though, there are some things you ought to know about your customers and the way they shop.

Message boards like Quora often feature conversations on the merits of digital and brick wall stores. Most people identify a few simple advantages for each.

ecommerce vs traditional retail

These themes are borne out consumer research. Recent surveys have given some clear insights into consumer habits.

Some Things Are Better Online:

In 2017, Retail Dive conducted a survey on over 1000 consumers. They asked about the type of things people prefer to buy in-store, rather than online. Out of six categories, participants only agreed on one (household essentials) that they preferred to purchase in a traditional shop.

eCommerce vs in-store preferences
RetailDive Consumer Survey (2017)

Cyber Spending is Easier:

In September 2018, the delivery and logistics company Whistl conducted a survey of British spending habits. They found that the majority of their subjects spent more online than they did when shopping in-store (around £50 more per session.)

Blurred Boundaries:

Whilst these surveys appear to confirm a preference for digital commerce, a larger survey conducted by RetailDive (with over 1400 participants), points towards a more complicated situation. Rather than abandoning the high-street, most people have developed a combined “brick-and-click” approach to shopping. The participants mentioned a number of things that eCommerce was unable to replace:

  1. Trying and testing items before buying them (62% mentioned this)
  2.  Taking items home immediately (49%)

Almost every survey from the last five years has shown that eCommerce is being combined with traditional shopping. Instead of replacing the high-street, the internet has transformed it. Most in-store purchases now involve online research, and many consumers use shops to try things they buy online. According to a 2019 survey by RetailMeNot, 69% of consumers regularly check online reviews whilst in-store and a further 53% check for special deals before paying.

The continuing relevance of brick wall retail highlights aspects of traditional shopping that the internet cannot replace. Many of these are due to psychological and behavioural effects.

The internet provides access to more information and a larger range of choices. This appeals to the Information Bias that most people experience before making a purchase. Additionally, the ease and emotional detachment of electronic payment helps to reduce the discomfort it causes.

psychological effects experienced online

By contrast, brick wall stores require no processing or problem-solving attention. This gives them the advantage of Cognitive Ease. The transparency and visibility of a real-world transaction also appeals to cognitive biases such as the Need for Certainty and provides a more tangible sense of ownership. 

retail store psychological effects

Alongside these cognitive principles are the social effects and anthropological phenomena that shape retail experiences. The rituals associated with the shop floor exercise a powerful pull on consumers. For example, a scan-and-go system trialled by Walmart in 2018 caused anxiety among shoppers. Without a formal checkout, and the closure it provides, many customers felt as though they were stealing. Rituals that demonstrate the completion of a transaction provide Choice Closure,  an important part of retail psychology. 

Online stores struggle to replicate the experiences that traditional retail provides. Making eCommerce as intuitive as a well-organised store is difficult; customers are not able to see your store in one glance, or pick items off the shelves. However, eCommerce strategies that apply the psychology of the shop-floor can improve user experience and raise conversion rates.

The most consistent reason for preferring traditional shops is the ability to pick up and explore the products. This tactile access also increases conversion rates; just holding an item exposes consumers to a powerful Endowment Effect. Providing sensory access to your products will make more of your visitors feel inclined to buy. 

Using HD images is the first step to immersion, and 360-degree images are used by a number of luxury brands. However, 3D imaging is likely to become essential in the next ten years.

immersive experiences for ecommerce

Other websites achieve the same “see”, “feel” and “touch” experience through video, screen-filling graphics and audio content. However, the best way to let customers experience your products is probably the low-tech solution: hire an amazing copywriter and create incredible product descriptions

Brick wall stores have one major advantage: customers can see each other. The best advert for a shop is a crowd, and a clean window can stop passers-by in their tracks. Incorporating social effects is the most effective eCommerce strategy available to web-marketers. Unfortunately, it is hard to get right.

The Science of Social Commerce:

Since the 1930s, psychologists have been intrigued by the influence that groups have over individuals. Early psychologists like Muzafer Sherif observed the impact of  group persuasion. In 1984, Robert Cialdini coined a term for these effects: Social Proof

The most successful platforms use testimonials and social sharing to apply a range of effects, including Social Proof, FOMO, Scarcity and Social Cognition.

social proof features for ecommerce

However, these static features struggle to match the immediate visual impact that shop-floor dynamics provide. An alternative eCommerce strategy is using live notifications and nudges that replicate the “buzz” of a busy shop. Nudgify, for example, integrates with a store’s live data to display stock levels and information about previous customers. 

nudge notifications for ecommerce stores

Some people go to the shops just to browse. They are not interested in a specific item; they just want the thrill of finding a bargain. Motivating Uncertainty describes the way in which uncertain outcomes are more appealing than fixed rewards. Whilst this phenomenon is difficult to replicate online, some digital stores have found ways to incorporate chance and uncertainty.

gamification strategy for ecommerce

Additionally, eCommerce giants have become experts at curating recommended lists. These features allow users to experience the thrill of the unexpected.

personalised recommendations in eCommerce

The layout of a shop influences how people behave. The same is true online. That means the architecture used to create efficient retail spaces is also relevant to the digital boutique. 

“Decompression Zones”

In his Why We Buy, consumer analyst Paco Underhill highlights a particularly awkward feature of consumer behaviour: entry speed. When someone enters a shop, they go through a period of adjustment (eyes dilate, olfactory senses heighten, memories are cued). Most brick wall shops have deliberate zones to slow people down and help them acclimatise. However, the “decompression zone” is missing from conventional eCommerce strategies. 

Whilst most online stores prioritise speed and efficiency, ethical brands and luxury stores sometimes offer a longer landing-strip. This is not wasted space; the decompression zone is an opportunity to give your products context and ensure your customers are in the right frame-of-mind. Retailers like Tiffany & Co, The Connaught and Rolex devote all the space above-the-fold to this purpose. 

landing page strategies for ecommerce

Social Spaces

Most people who walk into a shop on their own buy one thing, and most people who walk in with a partner buy more. This principle has led retailers to embrace the social aspect of shopping. Chairs are provided near changing-rooms, the spaces around mirrors are usually big enough for two people, and the music is never too loud for a conversation. 

Recreating these social spaces online is difficult. No-one has cracked the challenge of simultaneous browsing (have you ever tried to book a hotel or flight with a partner?) If an eCommerce store made it possible for groups to collaborate on a purchase in real-time (splitting the bill, even) they would benefit from one of the oldest tricks in the book.

Alternatively, many stores have experimented with the more conventional eCommerce strategies, such as:

  • Participatory design
  • Community memberships 
  • Message boards and pin boards
  • Social media integration

Brick wall shops are built for bodies. Specifically, they are built for customers’ bodies. That’s why children’s toys are placed on low shelves and educational games are eye-level for parents. It’s also why visual displays aimed at older customers are always easier to read. 

Despite this being one of the most obvious eCommerce strategies, the way that products are displayed tends to be consistent throughout online stores. Even the largest platforms stick to a consistent display (whether the product is a water-pistol or a walking stick.) 

segmented product descriptions

What most consumer surveys identify very quickly is that customers prioritise value for money above almost everything else. In a literature review published in 2019, eMarketer collected data on what made US consumers return to an online store. The survey found that 66% of customers listed “value for money” as the principle reason for brand loyalty. 

Rather than reducing the importance of strategy, this highlights the importance of conversion rate optimisation. A high-converting store is able to offer its customers better value (as giants like Amazon demonstrate.) In this case, eCommerce strategy, conversion rates and market success function together in a winner-takes-all scenario. Drawing from the strategies employed by brick wall stores, eCommerce can improve user experience and make landing pages more effective.

Stephen Courtney

by Stephen Courtney

Stephen is a digital marketer with a background in the history and theory of technology. He now writes about marketing and large technological systems.

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Stephen is a copywriter and CRO fanatic. He writes about web psychology and marketing.

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