Meeting Customers Where They Are: The Endless Evolution Of Virtual Selling

New tools allow retailers to meet consumer demand for convenient shopping.

The only constant in life and in retail is change. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen quite a rollercoaster ride for the brick-and-mortar store—closures and capacity restraints forced old-school sellers to step into the 21st century and create an online presence or, essentially, fail. However, the demand for hybridized shopping experiences was expanding long before the pandemic, particularly with the growth of the direct-to-consumer category. These days it’s no longer enough to simply have a website and sell online. Similar to finding the right location for an in-person retail store, online retailing is becoming a game of positioning oneself in the highest traffic places like social media and search engines and/or in the most places possible. With a new partnership between Shopify and Microsoft, as well as the growing number of tools for social media selling, retailers have plenty of support to provide consumers with convenient and flexible shopping experiences wherever they are most comfortable. 

Shopify x Microsoft 

Most recently, Shopify and Microsoft partnered to offer retailers new ways to access consumers. The Microsoft Channel app made updates to allow Shopify sellers access to the Microsoft Audience Network as well as a presence on the Bing search engine shopping tab. The new integration makes impulse buying much simpler with a BUY NOW button on both product ads and listings. 

While everyone and their brother may not be using Bing, one key strategy for retailers need these days is to basically become omnipresent—not only do consumers need to be reminded of a product numerous times before they buy, but your product needs to be front and center when they feel ready to buy. While it used to be that that meant your store location was right there on Friday night after dinner when a couple was ready to buy the new furniture, nowadays it could also be when your customer finally decides to buy as they scroll through the Microsoft Channel app while laying on a thoroughly uncomfortable bed. They might think to themselves, “Enough is enough, I need a new mattress.” By taking advantage of all available channels, retailers can ensure that they are there when a consumer decides to move forward with that purchase. 

Microsoft and Shopify are offering low and no-cost opportunities for visibility with this new partnership, which is advantageous for retailers simply needing an increased virtual presence and small businesses that may not want to invest more money in virtual but want to boost their visibility. 

The Proliferation of Social Media Selling Tools 

Another strategy is to choose the highest traffic areas of the web, just like you would choose high traffic showroom space, and ensure you create visibility there. In that case, social media is an important place to be. In fact, according to market research data from GWI, 54% of consumers conduct product research on social media. Instagram now offers new tools for retailer profiles that allow passive browsers to view pricing and even buy through the platform, creating another way to capture consumers whenever and wherever they are ready to purchase. 

All of that said, the consumer buying journey isn’t all that different than it has been in the past—but much of the socializing and shopping is now taking place in a combination of both in-person and online venues. Forbes aptly correlates social media channels with an in-person shopping mall: a place to socialize, consume media and explore products. As more companies sell on these platforms, consumers are not only catching up with friends, they are also gaining exposure to items they can purchase and new brands to engage with. 

Consumers Want a Combination of In-Person & Online

Even the social media landscape is hybridized based on user behavior. Some people primarily socialize online or engage with virtual content on platforms like TikTok and Instagram, while others utilize social media like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter to coordinate in-person interactions or find events to attend in real life. The same is true for driving traffic to stores and retail-oriented events. 

Sprout Social recently released new listening data based on social media conversations that provides useful insights into how consumers are using social media today. Not only did Twitter see an uptick in interest in pop-ups like Nordstrom’s Pop-In@Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s Bloomies, but the Sprout Social 2021 Index also showed that once a consumer follows a brand on social media, 86% will visit the physical retail store and 90% will make a purchase. 

What is becoming clear is that brands should avoid having tunnel vision—you don’t have to choose between brick-and-mortar and virtual anymore. The in-store experience is definitely not dead, neither is it necessarily in competition with the digital experience either. Instead, virtual campaigns, digital storefronts and online experiences can and should work together with brick-and-mortar retail locations and more traditional marketing strategies to provide the dual experience consumers crave. At the very least, retailers need to be there and ready for the consumer to buy when they want to. Whether consumers decide to buy when they are stealing a peak at Instagram on their lunch break or when they go to a physical storefront intent on making a purchase, retailers need to be in-tune with how the buying journey continues to evolve, change and expand to include new channels.

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