Depending on where you live, you might notice a curious trend as you head to the shopping center of your choice this holiday season. Many of the brick-and-mortar heavyweights are disappearing from the retail landscape, replaced by new store openings from Amazon Books to Warby Parker to Bonobos.

More and more online stores are getting in the foot traffic game, using their technology and data savvy to wrest the advantage from their slow-to-adapt counterparts. For any company that cries out traditional retail is dead, these innovative companies are proof that brick-and-mortar is still as viable as ever.

So why are the Amazons and Tuft&Needles of the world seeing success on both Cyber Monday and Black Friday, while the mall stalwarts are closing their doors? Simple: they understand the importance of meeting their customers where they are and carrying a consistent, recognizable brand through every consumer touchpoint.

Commerce where the customers are

This trend should serve as a wake-up call to companies that have not yet developed a competitive e-commerce platform for their retail business. And while it's true that over 90 percent of total sales in the US are made in physical store locations, e-commerce sales are growing at a 17 percent clip every year. That doesn't even take into account all of the pre-purchase decision making consumers do online, which contributes to the nearly $2 billion of web-influenced sales that occur in physical store locations.

The solution may seem simple -- open up an online store. But that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Not only do you need to have an e-commerce option available, but it needs to keep evolving with the needs of your customers. And it has to do so while being more than simply a place for customers to make a transaction -- it should be a seamless extension of the brand experience.

Small steps toward a giant e-commerce leap

Our company recently helped a national grocer client innovate by doing exactly that. They were already in 19 states and had an organic, health-based brand that people responded well to. But the concept of online sales completely eluded them -- they had no way of reaching potential customers who didn't make a trip in person.

If you're in a position where it's innovate or die, don't bite off more than you can chew. With our grocer client, we started small by creating a seasonal, easy-to-use microsite with the sole purpose of selling and taking orders for organic turkeys during the holiday season. The site is only up for six weeks every year, but it instantly became a key differentiator for this chain.

No matter how you choose to enter the e-commerce landscape, your decisions should be informed by and aligned with your core values and brand commitments. In the case of this grocer, we focused on their commitment to educate about their products. The microsite featured backstories on these turkeys, including information about the farms they came from.

Our research indicated that not only was including this information consistent with the in-store experience, but it was also what customers wanted. Successful online retailers are masters of approaching experiences from their audience's perspective because they've done the work to truly know their individual wants, needs and pain points. Consumers can buy turkeys online in many places, but by showing them things we knew they valued -- how-to's on choosing a turkey, recipes, health benefits -- we were able to deliver the best experience for them.

Even though the microsite is only available for those six weeks, it's so successful that this grocer is now looking at ways to expand the site to ultimately include all 50,000+ SKUs for online ordering. By hyper-focusing strategy at the beginning of your e-commerce efforts, you'll be better positioned to deliver a tailored experience you can learn and draw from.

Get goal-oriented

If you're looking for a place to start, solidify the goals --those of your customers and those of your organization. How can the online experience improve existing customer goals while also furthering your business goals?

Establish metrics early and regularly check in with site analytics to make sure it's delivering in the way you need it to. Start streamlined (like the turkey microsite) and add more features as you solve for conversion, engagement and retention.

If you don't know your customer goals, get out there and talk to them. The best brands go beyond the immediate, transactionary goals and get to underlying wants.

If you sell t-shirts, encourage your audience to open up about what t-shirts really mean to them and their current struggles with buying them. This will help you prioritize features and messaging so you're speaking to individuals about something real, not something you've guessed.

Keep them coming back

Once you have a grasp on what your customers want, it's important to deliver it in an engaging and compelling way so they'll make return visits. Doing so requires equal parts holding true to your corporate philosophy and core values, making the user experience as easy and smooth as possible, and creating reasons for customers to come back (like targeted emails tailored to an individual's interests).

As historically online-only retailers are encroaching into brick and mortar's territory, physical stores need to take a hard and fast look at the experiences they're offering online. As this new wave of brick and mortar has proven, success in both areas of commerce is possible as long as you stick to simple solutions that keep your brand relevant wherever your audience goes.

Published on: Nov 29, 2017