How To Apply Brick and Mortar Principles to Your Online Store

There’s a common perception that brick and mortar stores are lagging behind online stores when it comes to innovation. That may be, but there are actually many things that brick and mortar stores are doing better than e-commerce stores. Online store owners shouldn’t discount the rock-solid principles that fuel traditional retail stores. In fact, there are many brick and mortar tactics that can be successfully applied in the digital space.

Marketing and advertising through events

It is now easier and cheaper than ever to execute marketing campaigns and place ads digitally, but that also means that customers get bombarded with more ads than ever, leaving them less likely to notice yours. So, take a page from the brick and mortar playbook and tie your ad up with an event to make it more inviting. For example, you could have fabricate your own event by promoting a multi-day sale as a celebratory occasion. Or, you could promote your sale as related to a real holiday like the Fourth of July.

Sales events can be leveraged even further by cross-promoting the event via a special guest, such as another store or an influencer. Your special guest could write a guest blog or guest social media post all about your sales event and why they’ll be “in attendance” (online!). Imagine this: Your store, Sapify, has a one week sale: 50% off on all juice flavors because you are celebrating your second anniversary. During that week, you have a guest podcast with Meatify, another online store that sells vegan meat.

You now have both Sapify and Meatify’s audiences to promote to. It’s also helpful for Meatify since your audience might also become followers of their podcast.

(The businesses are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual businesses is purely coincidental)

Make them stay in your store longer

Having visitors is one thing, keeping them in your store is another. People on average stay on a site for just 15 seconds… which is definitely not enough for them to make a purchase.

It’s always more probable for a visitor to spend money if they spend more time in your store. Longer visits give them time to think and encourage their impulse to buy something. Although they might just be browsing at first, they might think eventually, “Since I’m already here, I might as well buy something.”

Brick and mortar stores are able to keep people in their store longer because people are there in person–and it takes longer than a click to exit an on-the-ground store. However, there are some tricks you can borrow that still apply in the online world.

Greet customers when they arrive at your store

A visitor needs to feel welcome and comfortable for them to linger. Just a simple greeting from the site itself or a welcome email can go a long way toward creating a welcoming atmosphere.

Even though accessibility and convenience are optimal online, hospitality still matters. A brief, virtual, “Hello, welcome!” keeps the consumer at ease and immediately creates a positive impression.

Design and layouts matter

Aside from aesthetics, smart tactics can also be applied to design.

laptop beside a notebook and camera

Retail stores have specific layouts that are really designed to keep customers in. Most commonly, the way brick and mortar stores do this is by controlling the customer’s pace around the store, such as by placing impulse-buy items in a long, winding checkout line. Here’s how you can control your customer’s pace online:

Fast loading pages are key

One of the most beautiful aspects about online shopping is the convenience. You don’t have to wade through crowds and you don’t have to wait in line. Because of this, everything is expected to go fast.

It could depend on the audience, but most of the people who visit your store will be browsing on their phone or computer. Not all people can afford the latest mobile device or laptop so keep in mind that cool but complex and slow-loading designs will take even longer to load on older software. Make assets (themes, pictures, video clips) as small in size as possible with minimal quality loss to enable fast loading times no matter what device people are browsing on.

Encourage customer slowdowns

Don’t worry, this is not a direct contradiction to the first point. Pages should still load fast, but you should implement design choices that make visitors want to slow down. It’s all about the teasing of information.

For example: On your product display page, highlight some of the important details on the immediate product display. This way, if customers are interested, they will click the product they want and this is where all the details should be.

Make sure that you also leave some selling points on the product details page so that you can still have another hook for the customer.

Another method for slowing down visitors are product highlights. Show best selling products immediately on the home page, and customers will stop and take a look at them. Remember, don’t go all in so fast. You need a bit of teasing to get the visitor’s interest.

Help/support should be visible but not annoying

Shoppers might need information, assistance and someone to talk to. In retail stores, this is intuitive–salespeople monitor the store and jump in to answer questions when a customer looks confused. But online, you have no way of knowing when a customer needs help, so it’s important to have virtual support standing by for a customer to ask questions.

The best way to offer this is to have chat support integrated with your website. Chat support, whether by bot or by a human is a very big plus for winning over a shopper. Chat support programs are easy to implement. However, it can be a challenge to determine how to approach the customer. Customers want finding help to be easy, but they don’t want to feel annoyed by a big chat box flashing in their face if they don’t need help yet. Chat support needs to be easy to see when a customer needs assistance but not intrusive and disruptive.

messenger chatbot on laptop screen

It’s going to take some time to get this right. The more data your chatbots/chat support team has, the more accurate your response time will be. We strongly advise that you get started implementing some form of chat support to gather enough data and finetune chat support to your audience’s preferences.

Another way to offer support is through FAQs. Make sure that this link is easily accessible for customers.

Lastly, you could provide instructional guides or video tutorials for your products or services.

Always make visitors leave with a positive experience

Just as in traditional retail, in the online shopping world, a visitor who leaves without a product hurts conversions, but it’s easy to make them come back when they still have a positive impression of your store. However, if a visitor left with a bad experience, you might end up losing them. What’s worse is that bad experiences spread like wildfire and could discourage potential customers in the long run.

So, try to take negative experiences such as products out of stock, returns and replacements and make them positive. The simplest way to do this is to address and acknowledge bad experiences that are broadcasted on social media, and then, of course, do your best to solve the issues. It gives a very good impression when you address these problems publicly. However, be very careful as people can be hostile on social media.

Give visitors multiple reasons to come back

This ties in closely to the previous point. Bad situations with good experiences often still make people want to come back to your store. Consider the experience of a retail shopper who finds that the store is completely out of their size but is satisfied by the staff’s helpful attitude. Likely, that customer would come back the following month because they believed the store had their best interest at heart.

Even though you won’t typically be able to interact person-to-person with your online customer, there are more things you can do to reinforce their desire to return to your store.

One common way is to have loyalty/membership/rewards programs to incentivize people to visit again and again. But there are other ways to keep people coming back.

  • Having helpful or entertaining content.
  • Having a community

Which brings us perfectly to our next point...

Remember the social/emotional aspect of brand loyalty

Stores are not just vehicles for transactions. They are also vehicles for information, entertainment and social events. Retail stores often host community events in their spaces, such as a yoga attire store hosting free yoga classes for loyal customers.

macbook and desktop on table

Creating a community online can be done through extending your brand into the other aspects of your customers’ lives, using blogs, podcasts, videos and social media.

Not only should you have open communication between your store and your customers, but you also need to have your customers interact with other customers. Host polls, discussions, AMAs (ask me anything) and other activities to have your customers bond over your brand and form a community around it.

Make your store not just a store, make it a digital “hang-out spot” for visitors.

Collaborate with your competition

Competitive collaboration might sound like an oxymoron, but it’s a normal practice between competing brick and mortar stores, especially in the food industry.

Imagine food contests in which local restaurants try to compete with presentation, skill or just plain taste. Some of those contests are actually organized by the restaurants themselves. It opens them up to new audiences while highlighting their specialties. It also stirs up the community, validating their loyalty amongst their chosen brands. It’s a win-win for everyone.

A great way to do this online is to have a subscriber/follower race. The winner will take over of the social media account of the other, or something along those lines. You can be creative with the mechanics and specifics.

Just make sure that you already have an agreement with the competitor first and make sure that both your audiences agree to be civil. It could divulge into a screamfest if proper expectations aren’t established.

You don’t have to reinvent the wheel

Physical stores do have a lot to learn from e-commerce but that doesn’t mean that e-commerce can’t get something out of the strategies brick-and-mortar stores have been employing for decades.

Digital stores have a reputation for constantly trying to come up with new, innovative strategies for customer service, marketing and sales. However, standards remain for a reason they work and have been working for years. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Even though brick-and-mortar stores’ strategies might seem out of date, there’s no denying that they work. And with a few simple tweaks, those tried-and-true strategies can be applied with great success online.

So, while innovation is usually good, don’t forget that the foundational principles that built traditional retail are worth being inspired by.