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The Online Vs. Offline Debate Is Officially Over: The People Have Spoken

  • Michele Fitzpatrick

    Michele Fitzpatrick

    Vice President - Strategy, Retail and Consumer Brands

Created at May 10th, 2022

The Online Vs. Offline Debate Is Officially Over: The People Have Spoken

I love to shop.  Online.  In a store.  By myself.  With others.  I don’t always buy, but when I shop for certain things, I totally love to see what’s out there.  I like to imagine the possibilities.  As a recent example, my husband and I were working together on a bathroom renovation.  He told me to go pick out the tile.  He had me at “go pick out.” 

I looked online for inspiration, used a few design configurators, talked to friends and family, looked at home improvement videos on YouTube, then went to a store to look at a selection of options in real life.  What kind of mood did I want for this bathroom?  A luxurious spa-like retreat from the real world?  A functional, ultra-modern aesthetic?  The possibilities were endless.  And because I don’t design bathrooms for a living, I needed to explore lots of options and alternatives to make my decision.

I ultimately selected the spa-like retreat and gave my hubby my selections so he could estimate how much material we needed, buy the tile at the store, and have it delivered to our home.  As the shopper, I used multiple channels in my path to purchase and along the buyer journey … online and offline.  This is not an unusual journey.  This is simply how it’s done.  As the buyers, we intuitively figure out where to go and what to do to inform our decisions and execute the transaction.

So why are pundits still debating online vs offline in the retail sector?  It seems many want to declare digital the winner.  Even prior to the pandemic, there were numerous predictions about the demise of the brick-and-mortar store, the so-called “retail apocalypse,” and the death of malls.  And surely the COVID-19 pandemic surely didn’t help matters with an estimated 130 flagship retailers shuttering their doors in the past two years.1 Add to that the increase and acceleration in digital shopping, and it might be easy to think the predictions were true.  That is until you look at the facts.  It’s estimated that despite the pandemic’s impacts and the growth in ecommerce, 75.5% of retail sales still occur in stores.1  And annual in-store sales outpace ecommerce sales by more than $15 trillion.1 Yes, that’s trillion with a T. 

While ecommerce sales are on the rise and estimated to grow 10 times faster than sales in brick-and-mortar sales over the next few years, in-store shopping and buying remain important and popular.  For this reason, digitally native direct-to-consumer brands such as Warby Parker, Allbirds and others are opening hundreds of stores around the world.1

The store plays an important role in the buyer journey.  The people have spoken.  We want both in-store and online shopping, and we want both on our terms.  We love buy-online-pick-up-in-store-or-curbside.  For some things, we prefer home delivery.  And our preferences change all the time.  Please don’t make us choose.  We want it all.  And we want it friction-free.  In marketing circles, we used to refer to this as “the customer experience.”  I suggest we now think of it as the human experience.  Brands that operationalize this connected customer experience will continue to outperform those that try to force people to buy a certain way.  Empowered customers buy more, buy more often, and are less expensive to serve.

In my opinion, the debate is officially over.  It’s time to get on board with the customer-centered buying experience.