How COIVID-19 sped up integration of digital into physical

Janis Healy shares how to get the integration of digital into physical right.

After more than a year of hibernation, customers are eagerly returning to live events and physical retail. Sporting events throughout the country are returning to full capacity. Music festivals, including Lollapalooza, Outside Lands and Bonnaroo, are scheduled to resume in 2021. And shopping malls that not long ago resembled ghost towns are once again buzzing with customers.

However, some of the changes brought about by COVID are still with us — and will be well into the foreseeable future.

Contrary to what some e-commerce giants will tell you, the retailers that grew most during COVID lockdowns were not purely digital. Make no mistake — the pandemic was tough on some retailers. But research has shown that the retailers that grew most during the pandemic did so on the strength of omnichannel strategies. For example, in Q2 of 2020 Target — who has spent years perfecting their balance between in store and online — posted the largest quarterly sales increase in company history.

So the idea that eCommerce has finally, unequivocally eaten brick and mortar for breakfast is pure fiction. In person retail is alive and well. But its role and its relationship with digital has changed significantly.

At EWI, we are big fans of technology-based brand experiences. Especially post-COVID, distinctions between “physical” and “digital” are (at best) blurry. Modern customers jump seamlessly from one to the other, and they expect seamless, integrated experiences at every turn. Successful customer experiences — whether at retail or at an event — increasingly contain a blend of physical and digital.

But, that doesn’t mean that brands can just stuff unrelated digital engagements into existing physical spaces and expect to win the hearts and minds of customers. Technology for technology’s sake is distracting and even annoying — and such sentiments will only increase as the population skews toward digital natives. At this point, digital tactics must be baked into an experience to be effective.

For example, when EWI was working with a large residential developer, we integrated digital to ease each pain point along the journey.  Imagine a development where there are over 40 models by multiple builders to choose from.  Questions from which models to view to which neighborhoods are the right lifestyle/cultural fit to which features are relevant to the family can overwhelm the prospective buyer. Our solution included a method to discretely share qualifying personal information, aggregating the data points to simplify the selection process and build a view of each neighborhood’s potential DNA.  The introduction of an RFID enabled key fob allowed the buyer to scan features as they visited the various models while seamlessly linking all of their data to their account.  On the flipside, the builders were able to get reports regarding which features within their models were being embraced by the buyers, empowering them to evolve their offerings accordingly.

So as customers return to in-person retail and events, remember that the stakes have changed. When working on a branded experience, retailers should look for opportunities to incorporate digital experiences into physical spaces. However, they should only do so only if the experience is smart, seamless and non-distracting. Brands that use technology to meet real (not imagined) customer needs and expectations are the ones who will come out on top.

Janis Healy is an independent consultant and retail strategy professional for EWI Worldwide with a passion to exceed the customer’s expectation at every twist and turn of their path to purchase. Speaking it is one thing, delivering it is the art. Janis’ niche is seizing ideas from strategy through execution, doggedly protecting the essence of the intent through transformational program leadership. She is respected within the organizations she works with for the ability to provide clear strategy and vision, assemble competent teams, and relentlessly drive the process to ensure all involved are empowered to experience success.