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GUEST COMMENT Online-to-offline retail. What’s the point?

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Clicks-to-bricks, e-tail-to-retail or online-to-offline (o-to-o). However you term it, the shift that’s bringing online brands to the high street is redefining the meaning of traditional retail.

Research by Royal Mail shows that over 40% of small online businesses are now seeking space in a store. But whilst many online retailers make the transfer offline, only few are succeeding in making a real impact. Through our work with some of the world’s biggest retail names, we know that stores must give clear benefit to customers for visiting a physical place over shopping more conveniently online. If a brand has a clear o-to-o purpose, it can craft a successful, long-lasting and fruitful omnichannel existence.

Two challenger brands in particular are making their o-to-o proposition very clear: Watchfinder and Made.

Go o-to-o to redefine trust

Watchfinder first launched online in 2002. It soon became the UK’s largest retailer for pre-owned, premium watches. After ten years redefining the luxury watch market (drumming-up over 12 million hits a day to the site), its founders opened its first high street store in 2013. Reasons for this are diverse; from needing space for its library of stock, to putting weight behind the luxury experience of the brand. However, at the heart of it was giving customers a place to see and believe the offering.

Whilst its website features all the right ingredients to build trust (realtime reviews, money back guarantee, the Watchfinder Warranty and access to their renowned, manufacturer-certified, watch service centre), to stay competitive, such brands need a place to store stock acquisition. More importantly, they need to give their brand a face. Physical stores offer indicators of trust far more rapidly than online ­– from positive customer service to presentation of products, quality of stock and being able to see other trusting customers in store.

Watchfinder chose London’s Royal Exchange as its first ‘boutique’ physical home – a smart move in cementing its trustworthiness, with reputable timepiece heavyweights Omega and Tiffany & Co. as neighbours. In-store, it communicates the same exceptional service of a traditional premium watch retailer (with brightly-lit glass display cases and formally-dressed staff members), but has added an omnichannel element, with iPads displaying the full online inventory. Proving that trust really does sell, the company has sold over £140m worth of watches to date. With the launch of its second high street store last year in Bluewater shopping centre, it’s on point to achieve a turnover of £103m by 2018.

Go o-to-o to redefine customer engagement

Another purpose-driven retailer is Made. This brave designer furniture name is using its physical expression to increase consumer-generated content, and therefore consumer engagement with products both online and off. The London-based retailer first launched online in 2010, setting an intention to “revolutionise” the furniture industry. An aggressive mover, Made now has four physical showrooms (three in London, one in Leeds). Its success with merging online and offline boundaries through technology-enhanced experiences is becoming well respected in the retail industry. At the heart of it all is one clear question: what do their customers like to do?

Made’s customers like exclusivity. So, Made’s newly-launched ‘Unboxed’ portal gave customers access to exclusive members clubs (which just so happen to be furnished with Made products) in return for sharing pictures of Made’s products in their homes online. The Notting Hill Gate showroom also asks customers to sign-in with their email address – giving customers the feeling of exclusivity, whilst cleverly helping Made to track any increase in sales back to the store. Made customers also want an element of personalisation in the physical space, which is why NFC-enabled cloud tags let them access more product information at the tap of their tablets of phones. This then becomes the customer’s wish list, or can be emailed to them direct. Lastly, customers like to feel that their opinions count. Made’s Soho showroom asks for feedback on every item it showcases – the one with the best online comments gets mass-produced. Socialising the brand in this way validates a customers’ time and effort, leading them to brand advocacy.

The next big question

Reasons for going o-to-o are today as multi-faceted as the businesses themselves. Many online brands will play it safe within the confines of the in-store model. But contemporary consumers are drawn to the brave brands who aren’t resting on their laurels to test new omnichannel strategies to engage customers across all platforms; those pairing the best technology with an immersive in-store world, those that offer boundless product choice and fingertip information in store, and those that drip-feed exclusive, experience-driven content to incentivise return visits. With competition only set to rise, online retailers must ask what role physical retail will play for their brand. They must also become the answer to consumers’ next question: what brand gives me the best reason to buy?

Ben Barton is creative director of StartJG

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