Brands and retailers with brick-and-mortar stores have a huge potential that is often untapped. They can use their stores as stock locations for online sales, optimizing stock availability and providing engaging omnichannel experiences.
In recent years, you may have heard terms such as "ship from store" and "pickup in store" being introduced as part of the so-called omnichannel strategy that many businesses are trying to implement. In truth, very few brands have adopted a true omnichannel strategy even today. The biggest obstacle is when physical and online stores are owned by different legal entities. Other times, the reasons are mostly technical.
The process of sharing stock between the online channel and the physical store is more complex than it might sound. It requires a unified view of stock that is independent of sales channels. Good news is that API-first solutions have made it easier than ever to implement omnichannel architectures, and it might finally be the time when we begin seeing more and more of those experiences come to life.
The purpose of this article is to explain some of the most common scenarios that involve a physical store in the online purchasing process. We will explain the main benefits, along with some technical implications, we should take into account when building the applications to enable those scenarios.
Ship from store
Shipping online orders from a physical store can be a very effective way to increase sales, without too much effort from a business and technical perspective. A capillary network of stores offers a deeper market penetration without major investments, since it reuses existing locations that have already been established for in-person sales.
In essence, a store is like a small warehouse with stock replenishment processes already in place. When a customer purchases a product online, the store can ship the order to the customer as it was a small logistic center.
Customers can be completely transparent about the process. The fact that their parcel is delivered from a store rather than a traditional warehouse doesn't affect how they shop online. Technically, all you have to do is expose the store's inventory online and use the store's address as the "ship from" address of the order.
Find in store
"Find in store" allows merchants to display inventory from stores that do not ship orders. Customers who cannot find a product online have the option of finding the product in store and picking it up manually.
Generally, the experience appears on the product page, as a secondary call to action that opens a store selection interface when an item is out of stock. However, nothing prevents you from always showing this option also when the item is available online.
The selection can be as simple as a list of stores, perhaps ordered by distance if you know the location of the customer, or as sophisticated as a map showing the locations.
Once a customer has chosen a store to fulfill their order, it is important to lock that store as the stock location. When the customer checks out, the shipping method will be "pickup in store", and instructions for picking up their order will be provided.
Payment can be made online or in person. In case of online payment, the entire process is also known as Buy Online, Pickup In Store (BOPIS). If the customer decides to pay for the order in person, instead, there's a softer commitment. So, when reserving the stock in store, it's generally a good idea to release the reservation if the customer does not show up within a specific timeframe.
iPad in store
An example of a flow that is the opposite of BOPIS is when a customer enters a physical store and does not find what they are looking for. An example is a pair of shoes that are not available in the customer's size. A sales assistant can use a device—such as an iPad—to check the availability of the product online and offer the customer to have it shipped directly to their home instead of losing the sale.
Also in this case, the store needs real-time visibility into what's available online. Payment can be made using the iPad as a point-of-sale device. Commissions can also be tracked via the iPad application in markets where sales assistants earn commissions on their sales. Thus, a potentially lost sale in store has been transformed into an online sale, a happy sales assistant and, most importantly, a happy customer.
Return in store
In addition to making sales, physical stores can handle returns as well. Customers can sometimes find it annoying to have to ship an order back to a warehouse. They must print a shipping label (or use a return label included in their parcel) and set up an appointment with the shipping carrier.
Allowing them to return the order in store can make the return process easier for them. Also, bringing a customer in store is always a great opportunity to offer an exchange, store credit, or even a cross-sell.
As a technical matter, you should include the stores as return locations and let customers choose one from a list. Given the different purpose, follow up instructions can be similar to pickup in store instructions, albeit with different messaging.
Reinventing the store
The rise of ecommerce has made it difficult for many physical stores to grow or even remain open. But ecommerce should not be regarded as a threat to traditional commerce, but rather as an ally. The retail industry should modernize its operations and incorporate more digital experiences, integrating them with online sales.
The store of the future may just be a showroom without local stock where people can view and try products before ordering them online. Alternatively, it might become a 24/7 pickup and return location for online orders, with same-day delivery and instant refunds and product exchanges. Whatever the case may be, I believe brick-and-mortar stores will continue to play an important role for businesses and will not disappear. They will just be reinvented.