Online vs brick-and-mortar: How purchase-channel differences impact customer loyalty

Experts predicted high holiday sales — the best in years — and big-box retailers … missed the mark. This happened despite more retailers than ever concentrating on e-commerce to capitalize on predictions that consumers would spend more than ever online.

So, what happened? Part of the problem could be that retailers invested in the wrong aspects of their customers’ online and brick-and-mortar shopping experiences, unintentionally hurting customer satisfaction and the likelihood a customer will repurchase.

Specific aspects of customer satisfaction matter more or less depending on where customers shop, and because better customer satisfaction leads to increased customer loyalty, retail executives who don’t understand these differences can miss opportunities to maximize their sales. Knowing how best to cultivate customer satisfaction in a multichannel marketplace is an important competitive advantage, especially for executives planning new campaigns that span online and offline channels. Strengthening customer loyalty can help companies expand their market share.

Previously, there had been little research verifying these differences, but we recently dove into our data and uncovered a few key differences in how customer satisfaction is generated in online and offline purchase channels.

One chance to get it right with online shoppers

To start, we found that customers are more sensitive to their satisfaction when shopping online. What do we mean by that? The likelihood a customer will never purchase a product again or will switch retailers following a single unsatisfactory brand experience is much higher online than offline.

This comes down to convenience. With virtually unlimited retailers at an online shopper’s fingertips, it doesn’t cost them much to switch to a competing brand. But the same customer might need to drive 15 minutes out of their way to find a brick-and-mortar substitute — something they might not be willing or able to do.

Moreover, while customer satisfaction can drop for any number of reasons, our research found that perceived value (a measure of quality relative to price paid) drives customer satisfaction more online than in person. This too is unsurprising, given that e-commerce has played a large role in driving down prices across the retail world.

Perceived value is impacted not only by the product’s quality, but also by any extra costs associated with the purchase, if a promotion is running on the product, if it was easy to find and purchase the product, how quickly the product will be delivered (if shopping online), and more. Because it’s easier for customers to conduct price and quality comparisons online than offline, customers hone in on and develop perceived value more so online than they do in stores.

To build customer satisfaction through perceived value, online retailers should have more efficient websites than their competitors, offer easier access to purchase and search history, and provide more product details, photos, and videos.

Online retailers can’t ignore other factors influencing customer satisfaction either, such as overall quality and expectations. By improving each part of the customer’s experience, online retailers can combat the hair-trigger tendencies e-commerce customers have to switch retailers.

Overall quality and customer expectations key for brick-and-mortar stores

Meanwhile, our data show that the customer satisfaction of offline customers is driven more strongly driven by overall quality and expectations. In brick-and-mortar stores, quality products and customer expectations are key to customer satisfaction. The advantage traditional retailers have is two-fold: face-to-face human interaction and a perceived reduction in shopping risk.

When interacting with an in-store sales representative, customers can ask every question they have and receive trustworthy answers in response. Customers can also handle the product they intend to purchase, receiving tactile feedback about its quality.

This finding validates current recommended practices to enhance customer experiences: Create a pressure-free environment to interact with high-quality products, and ensure knowledgeable staff is on hand. Additionally, offline retailers need to focus on sharing reliable product information and maintaining a trustworthy image.

However, brick-and-mortar retailers won’t be able to attract digital shoppers and compete with their online competitors just by focusing on these areas. Keeping in mind online shoppers’ emphasis on perceived value, brick-and-mortar stores must devise a way to one-up online competitors in this regard. That could start with more competitive pricing, though executives should be wary not to fall into the trap of price cutting.

Overall, retailers can develop better customer experiences and drive more purchasing by customizing their approaches to online and offline purchase channels. Even though retail executives face mounting pressure to consolidate channels and adopt omnichannel strategies, they can’t lose sight of the differences as they head into 2019. If they do, online and offline executives alike risk hurting customer satisfaction and losing out on market share because of decreased customer loyalty and repurchase intent.

The above findings generally persist across customer demographics and retail categories. For exceptions, details on methodology, and more results from the research, read the full paper in the Journal of Retailing.

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