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Shopping: The in-store experience is in need of a digital makeover

December 1, 2010 | 11:03 am

When we want to buy, we go online and click, click, click. But when we want to shop, we head to the mall.

As online retailers and bricks-and-mortar stores scramble to pull in shopping dollars this holiday season, a new study says that vendors are leaving money on the table by failing to digitize the shopping experience and allow both worlds –- online and in-person shopping –- to inform the other.

Take reader reviews, for example. They’re everywhere online. But why isn’t there a way for in-store shoppers to easily tap on a nearby screen to find reviews on that lamp, eyeliner or power drill they’re eyeing? Conversely, the online experience lacks the serendipity of strolling through a shopping mall on a lazy Sunday afternoon when -– score! –- you find something that you didn’t even know you wanted but just had to buy. (The experience is even better when said item is on sale.)

These were some of the findings contained in “Women, the Web and Their Wallets,” a joint research study between BlogHer -- the online community hot spot for women –- and research consultants Create With Context. BlogHer frequently takes the temperature of the roughly 23 million readers it reaches each month, but this is the first study to drill down on shopping patterns. Launched in part to inform retailers how to best reach its readers and increase the clout of female shoppers, the data can also be used by the retailers and entrepreneurs inside the BlogHer community.

“We wanted a kind of benchmark of our community and our active social media users. The time was really ripe to go out and speak to retailers about the intersection between online commerce and social media users,” said Elisa Camahort Page, BlogHer co-founder and chief operating officer.

And what they found is that savvy retailers and sellers who find that sweet spot -– merging the ease of online shopping with the unexpected delights that come from leisurely mall shopping -– will rake in the bucks.

Consider for a moment how much cellphone technology has changed in the last two years. (It wasn’t all that long ago that you only used your cellphone for making calls.) Now consider that shopping, whether online or at your favorite mall, has pretty much stayed the same for the last decade. And that’s a missed opportunity.

By and large, people come at shopping from two avenues. They either know precisely what they want and are looking for the cheapest, quickest or easiest way to get it, or they are just ... shopping. They want something, but they’re also just looking around. Maybe they have a particular item in mind, or maybe they’re open to the possibilities.

The online experience caters to the first group. Websites are built to force users to increasingly narrow down their choices until, ideally, they find precisely what they want. “That’s great when you have a specific set of criteria, like, you are looking for a refrigerator that fits a certain opening, or you’re looking for a washer and dryer with a drum big enough to fit all of the family’s clothing,” Camahort Page said. And that’s how online shopping has been “winning,” Ilana Westerman of Create with Context said, adding, “Online shopping is better suited for those day-to-day shopping needs. People know precisely want they want, and they just want to figure out the best way to get it.”

But sometimes that online shopping experience can be too limiting. Users are reined in by a certain set of shopping criteria, or, conversely, it can lead to an overwhelming avalanche of information as you try to sift through page after page of “black shoes.”  

And the online experience doesn't come close to duplicating the shopping side of shopping. “Sometimes, we go to the mall and we are thinking, “I want to find something ‘cute’ for my daughter or my friend or even myself,” Camahort Page said. “And that’s where stores at the mall win.”

Some retailers are already taking advantage of this gap. Both women mentioned Gilt as an example of a website doing it right. The online “members-only” boutique offers deep discounts on designer items. It has a chic feel that is both fun and luxurious with guest curators, and the ability to shop by personality. Likewise, some bricks-and-mortar shops are unveiling kiosks with computer screens that help shoppers find exactly what they are looking for, what it might look like in other colors, whether it’s in stock, and more. They also cited Best Buy as an example of a store blurring the line between online and in-store shopping: The electronics giant recently launched a cellphone app that detects when shoppers are in the vicinity of a Best Buy store -- and entices them with coupons and other rewards to stop and shop.

The bottom line, of course, is that we’re in a world where everyone wants everything –- and they want it now, Westerman and Camahort Page said.

“When people are going shopping and they decide not to buy it because they don’t have all the information they want, that's a lost sale, that's lost revenue,” Westerman added. 

“It’s all about personalization,” Camahort Page said. “E-commerce has been kind of flat for the last five or seven years. And I think it’s just getting ready to boom, and whoever takes it by the horn is going to win.”

--Rene Lynch

Photo: Holiday shopping at South Coast Plaza. Credit: Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times