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Online Shopping Is Transitioning to a More Touchy-Feely Model

Customers want to feel how a product fits in their hands as well as how it fits into their lives.

Agustín Ruiz/Flickr

Our society loves immediacy and frictionless buying, two qualities that are heavily reflected in our consumer habits. Popularized by Amazon, one-click online shopping and next-day delivery are now common practice for most major retailers. That type of down-and-dirty transactional purchasing is ideal for everyday staples like laundry detergent and diapers. However, savvy consumers are demanding more from stores when shopping for products with deeper impact to them: They want an informative, interactive purchasing experience, not just a transaction.

Customers want to feel how a product fits in their hands as well as how it fits into their lives. In short, they want to experience a human connection. Every step from the initial introduction of a product to the walk-through of its final setup needs to be engaging and (ideally) enjoyable both in-store and online.

Within the next five years, any vendor with a large offering of premium products will have to provide this immersive experience or risk being put out of business by companies that do.

Tangible perks

Currently, the majority of luxury retailers offering the experience-based perks consumers crave have a significant brick-and-mortar presence, and it is clear why. In a recent survey conducted by Timetrade, 65 percent of consumers reported that if an item they want is available online or in a nearby store, they prefer to shop in-store. A whopping 30.8 percent of consumers claimed that they are more likely to buy things that they can feel and examine in person. The numbers speak for themselves: Before making big-ticket or luxury purchases, consumers like to pick things up and play with them.

Think Apple. When you walk into an Apple store, you feel taken care of and supported by the staff. You can get your hands on and test multiple products before making an expensive purchase. Today, the company’s 450 global stores serve 1,000,000 customers a day. Apple generates more sales per square foot than any U.S. retailer, and by a substantial margin. Its showroom model has even helped floundering resellers like Best Buy regain their footing.

Coincidence? Target doesn’t think so.

The Minneapolis-based retail giant recently opened up a new store in San Francisco called Target Open House. The installation is described as “part retail space, part lab, part meeting venue for the connected home tech community.” Open House is an entire home filled with high-end interconnected thermostats, sprinklers, doorbells, door locks, baby monitors, lamps, speakers, coffee makers and more. The installation was not only meant to display the Internet of Things, but also to put working examples of pricy electronics in front of people who might not be able to see their intrinsic value from a simple online listing.

Even up-and-coming startups are getting in on the action.

A new event space called is now a prominent part of San Francisco’s Westfield Mall. Bespoke is a “trifecta” of co-working, demo and event spaces where tech companies present new tech products that are in the beta or pre-order stage. The space gives consumers an opportunity to try out cutting-edge products and see if they connect with the new tech. It’s much more exciting than watching a YouTube unboxing and gives you a better sense of whether or not it’s a gadget you need.

The positive correlation between an interactive buying experience and increased sales has not gone unnoticed by other major retailers eager to utilize this insight any way they can. The result has been a great deal of experimentation on how to best transition the online shopping experience from being strictly transactional to a more experience-based purchase-and-acquisition process.

Pixel perfect

Before Apple came onto the scene with its clean and simple aesthetic, there was Ikea. The Swedish retailer was profiting from its customers’ desire to experience products in their natural setting long before it became a trend. Keeping with its forward-thinking decisions, Ikea was also one of the first major retailers to enhance its online customer experience. By adding features like the online Ikea Planning Tools, it now sees the majority of its traffic online rather than in stores, with 1.6 billion website visits and only 812 million store visits in 2014. Ikea’s experiential model is one of the key reasons that the company has steadily increased its total revenue from 12.9 billion euros in 2004 to 29.3 billion only a decade later.

While Amazon is cautiously entering the world of brick and mortar, it continues to dominate the realm of online shopping. The retail juggernaut was the No. 1 pure-play online retailer last year and reported net sales of $88.98 billion, proving that a successful experience-based purchase-and-acquisition process does not require a storefront.

While much of Amazon’s success is due to low prices and its exceptionally well-received Amazon Prime offering, customers keep coming back for the front-end experience. The website’s 360-degree product views are a standard feature, as are how-to videos, promoted expert reviews and hundreds — even thousands — of user reviews. It’s no wonder Amazon is also ranked No. 1 for overall customer experience.

The only thing Amazon cannot do is tell you how jeans are going to look when you try them on. For that, there’s Asos.

The U.K.-based online clothing store, the darling of customers and shareholders alike, has created a very successful pure-play online model that satiates every consumer need from start to purchase. Its goal is to deliver an “increasingly personalised [experience], available in all places, and at all times.” The site was the first to introduce a catwalk video view of models strutting up and down a raised platform wearing the item of interest in order to give shoppers a better idea of what they are buying and how it might look in real life. That feature, along with Asos’ extensive and comprehensive sizing charts, quick and easy return policy and robust help center is keeping the company on track to reach its goal of £2.5 billion in annual sales for 2015.

Who do you think is doing the best job providing an ideal customer experience? Alternatively, who is going about it all wrong? Let me know @TactusTech.

RK Parthasarathy is the VP of sales and marketing at Tactus Technology, makers of Phorm, the world’s first morphing-screen accessories for iPads and iPhones. Reach him @TactusTech.

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