Summer is winding down, which means now is the time for small businesses to jump into holiday sales planning. Labor Day until the end of the year is the make-it-or-break-it season for the majority of retailers. Back-to-school shopping winds down just as fall's seasonal holidays start to ramp, accelerating towards the critical stretch from Black Friday/Cyber Monday to Christmas. Addressing the opportunity also requires the most preparation and coordination by merchants, especially by those who operate in both physical-store and online channels. Even outside the retail vertical, closing out a great 2015 depends largely on performance in this peak period of demand. But every year, it seems like consumers surprise us with the what, where, when and how of their shopping, buying, paying and returning behavior. Don't worry though; we can break apart these factors and talk about what is expected this year. Today, we will help you navigate 2015 consumer preferences on the "where"--that is, how consumers in different verticals use unique combinations of physical stores and digital channels to research and then buy.

Showrooming "Mythbusted" for Many Verticals

Over the last several years, many retailers (especially larger ones) have expressed concern about a trend around shoppers first browsing in store, but then purchase online from a discount competitor (also known as "showrooming"). But the reality of this years' holiday shopping is showing some positive signs for merchants with physical stores in certain verticals. Recent research from PayPal shows in fact that many consumers shopping in high-value verticals prefer researching online and then buying in the store.

 

PayPal asked consumers in the U.S. and 21 other countries about their purchasing habits in six core shopping verticals. They were given four options: 1) research and buy in store; 2) research online and buy in store; 3) research in store and buy online; and 4) research and buy online. The findings include the surprising fact that "research in store and buy online" did not rank number one in any category for any country! So while the growth of mobile devices is taking over many parts of our lives, at least when it comes to holiday shopping, in-person, old-school shopping and buying in store still rules.

 

The research does reveal differing insights across verticals though. Let's take a deeper look at the factors driving shoppers' decisions in six retail categories--clothing, cosmetics, tools/DIY, education/entertainment, furniture and consumer electronics.

 

Haute Couture, Handbags and Hairspray--Selling in Person is the Way to Go (Unless You Are in China)

When it comes to buying clothing and fashion items, an overwhelming majority of consumers prefer to both research and shop in store. 20 of the 22 countries surveyed showed consumers prefer this as the most popular method of shopping for clothing or fashion goods. In the U.S., this was the top answer with 50 percent of respondents. The only country with truly unique channel behavior is China, where the research reveals that consumers actually prefer a completely online experience. In Germany, a more balanced story exists, where consumers show equal preference for entirely in store or entirely online experiences. For beauty supplies and cosmetics, consumers from 21 countries decisively prefer to conduct their shopping entirely in store, again with the U.S. consumer showing a 53 percent preference. Chinese consumers, however, are equally divided between in store and online experiences.

 

Education and Entertainment Products Are Shopped and Bought in Same Channel (Usually Online)

Global purchasers of education and entertainment products clearly indicate a preference for a digital experience when buying these wares. In all but one country, consumers said they were most likely to both research and purchase these products online. In the U.S., 56 percent (first place) prefer a completely online process of browsing and buying these products. It is noteworthy that no country demonstrated a preference for researching in one channel and purchasing via the other.

 

Furniture and Consumer Electronics Prompt Internet Research Before In Store and Online Buying

Of the six shopping verticals, shoppers are most likely to research online before purchasing in store when shopping for furniture/appliances and consumer electronics. For furniture and appliances, we see a strong bias towards buying in store after conducting research. Consumers in five countries (the U.S., Canada, Russia, Australia and Israel) rank this method of shopping as their preferred way of buying furniture and appliances. An additional four countries (Austria, Netherlands, China and the United Arab Emirates) were equally divided between this method of shopping and another. In consumer electronics, the majority of global consumers prefer to conduct their entire experience online. This was true in the U.S., taking the top answer at 49 percent. However, consumers from Mexico, Turkey, Canada and Russia prefer to research online and purchase in store. Australians and Swedes are split between conducting prior research online and completing their entire experience online.

 

IN SUMMARY: For Most Verticals, Balancing Channels Matters Most

Across most verticals, the data shows that customers still prefer to find and buy that perfect holiday gift in store, but more nuanced uses of digital channels continues to evolve. So, if you have a multichannel presence (online and physical storefront) in one of the verticals where cross-channel shopping and buying exists as mentioned above, you may not want to close the storefront doors anytime soon. But the growth that is available through online channels--especially to reach international customers--is worth reinforcing as an opportunity for even greater sales. In the verticals where online shopping and buying are primary channels or are in balance with in-store, merchants must invest in delivering a great browsing and buying experience on mobile. But don't let your research stop there, as there are other topics that can be helpful. For example, shipping is one area retailers can take a closer look at if they want to spur more online sales--considering options for free shipping, free return shipping and international shipping. Given that more than 50 percent of all consumers say they require some sort of shipping help to complete an online transaction, this could be a high-value area to focus on.

 

Armed with data and tips like these, businesses of all sizes--and in all verticals--can develop a balanced game plan across online and in-store channels to close out 2015 with a bang.

Published on: Sep 9, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.