Customer buying behaviours online vs offline.

It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the digitalization process in a number of fields, including the retail industry. According to experts, online shopping penetration has risen from 15.8% in 2019 to 21.3% in 2021. When brick-and-mortar shops were forced to close or offline shopping was heavily restricted, having a solid online platform became paramount for business survival. Consumers were also heavily affected. More and more traditional consumers, who previously preferred human interaction to the lonely experience of online shopping, were thrust into the online world ready to reap the benefits of 21st century technology. Inevitably, some of them held on to their offline expectations and encountered difficulties adjusting to this brave new world of endless possibilities and intrusive marketing.

Considering this recent surge in online shopping, today, it is more important than ever to understand consumer behaviour and acknowledge the differences between online and offline shopping behaviours, in order to provide the best possible experience.

Oftentimes, when we think about online shopping behaviour, we immediately think about the purchasing experience itself. Nevertheless, both online and offline, the shopping experience actually begins long before any product is added to a cart. It all begins with why, so, in this article, we will try to identify the differences and similarities between the online and the offline shopping process starting with the very beginning: the motivation behind choosing one type of shopping experience over the other.

Due to the hectic pace of everyday modern life, an increasing number of consumers are seduced by the idea of shopping whenever they can, without worrying about how much time they will waste going from one store to the next. Online shoppers value convenience. Shopping online allows consumers to compare prices and make the best decisions, with just a couple of clicks, all from the comfort of their own home or office. They expect to be able to find products quickly and then go through the checkout process as swiftly as possible. Online shopping is less about the shopping experience per se and more about efficiency. This means that online shoppers behave quite differently from traditional consumers. They do not have the patience to peruse the aisles hoping to find the right product or size. If they can’t find it with just a couple of clicks, they will simply move on to another website. 

A great shopping experience is surely still important in the digital world, but consumers will judge the quality of the online shopping experience using criteria such as speed, accessibility or ease of navigation. A great delivery service, a fair return policy and a straightforward checkout process can also contribute to enhancing the online experience.

Checkout is, in fact, a crucial phase of the shopping experience both online and offline.

Although obviously inspired by the offline version, the online checkout experience is quite different, and so is consumer behaviour during this phase. If, in the final stages of the traditional checkout experience, consumers are surrounded by products that could easily be added to their carts as a result of impulse shopping, online, distractions are kept to a minimum. Once consumers decide to shop in a particular offline store, they become, in a sense, captive and can choose to limit their choices to what’s available, whereas online shoppers are free to abandon their carts and start over on another website. That’s why, instead of tempting users to explore more options, effective online checkout flows focus on convincing the user to complete the existing transaction by offering additional incentives such as discounts and convenient delivery options. Online, trying to increase the value of a cart by suggesting additional related products during checkout is a risky strategy because it could send the user looking for a new item, never to return again.

Convenience and speed are essential for online shoppers, however, despite offering a great shopping experience from landing page to checkout, some consumers will still choose to abandon a website if the right variety of products is not readily available to them. If in a traditional store, consumers may be reluctant to continue searching in other shops and might sometimes settle for the next best thing, online shoppers will not think twice before leaving. Brand loyalty is extremely fragile in the digital world, and browsing for the best offer or product is an inherent part of online shopping behaviour.

Some online shoppers do miss the more personal experience offered by brick-and-mortar shops where friendly employees guide consumers and help them make the best choice. Consequently, ecommerce businesses are trying to provide that human touch through AI-powered virtual assistants or just offer guidance through friendly and helpful copywriting. In fact, ecommerce websites are always trying to incorporate more and more aspects of the offline buying experience into their online shopping process in order to attract traditional consumers.

Although extremely impatient and fickle, online shoppers are not radically different from offline consumers, they simply prioritise different aspects of the shopping experience.

When deciding to look for a product online, consumers are in fact deciding to prioritise benefits such as convenience, variety and pricing, over the security, immediacy and look-and-feel experience offered by conventional stores. This does not mean that online consumers don’t want to enjoy the benefits of traditional shopping experiences online, they are simply willing to compromise, for now, at least.

Ecommerce platforms are striving to meet consumer expectations, so they are quickly catching up to offline stores. By offering swift delivery services, they have managed to provide a compelling argument to those looking to make the best use of their time. Although it is not as immediate as buying a product in a store, a scheduled delivery is often preferable to wasting precious time standing in line.

Modern security protocols guarantee data protection, so consumers can trust that their payment data is safe on ecommerce websites that implement these technologies. Plus, there are multiple payment methods available. However, besides payment data security, offline stores also provide a sense of security when it comes to the product itself.  In conventional shops, consumers can test the product and be sure that it caters perfectly to their needs. Plus, there’s really no chance of accidentally leaving the store with the wrong product. That’s why, in order to provide a similar sense of security, most ecommerce website offer generous return policies, assuring users that, if a product fails to live up to their expectations, they can simply return it.

The look-and-feel factor is naturally more difficult to incorporate into the online shopping experience, but this hasn’t stopped ecommerce websites from trying. For instance, on platforms such as Amazon, 3D videos can be used to showcase products, offering users the chance to experience the product.

Human beings thrive thanks to their adaptable natures, and, over the past decades, they have learned to adapt to their new digital habitat. This means, that online shops are not the only ones trying to play catch-up. Brick-and-mortar shops are slowly adapting in order to accommodate the expectations of a new generation of buyers who are more comfortable with online shopping than with in-store purchases. By implementing a self-service check-out, shops are reducing costs and providing a more impersonal experience for consumers who are not interested in social interaction. Plus, in an attempt to attract online buyers, big retail chains have also developed apps that allow clients to buy their favourite products whenever they have a spare minute.

Online and offline shopping are, in fact, interconnected. Today, even if consumers ultimately choose to purchase big-ticket items from a local store, they will, more often than not, browse several websites before committing to a specific product and price. However, the opposite phenomenon also occurs. Customers can choose to test a product in a brick-and-mortar shop before actually purchasing it online.

In today’s day and age, offline stores cannot afford to completely ignore online shoppers and need to adapt in order to survive, just as online brands need to change and accommodate the expectations of more traditional shoppers. Competition is bound to be fierce in the online world, with major retailers trying to become important players in the digital retail industry as well. Will your ecommerce successfully navigate these exciting times?   The success of an ecommerce business depends on understanding the intricacies of both online and offline consumer behaviour. So, in order to thrive, ecommerce websites need to embrace habitual offline shoppers and highlight characteristics such as payment data security, return policies and delivery services, while also wooing online shoppers with great offers and a flawless shopping experience. It is a different balancing act, but the prize is worth it: a piece of an 861 billion dollar pie. And the online shopping industry is just beginning to take off.

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