Naomi Palmer, Digital Director at Storey

How hybrid retail is the future of sustainable shopping

Naomi Palmer, Digital Director at Storey focuses in on hybrid retail and how it is impacting the future of sustainable shopping.

The pandemic has transformed the nature of work – with more employees working from home than ever before – but it has also changed the face of retail. Consumers have now experienced a prime omnichannel experience where they can shop either in-store or online, choosing a time and place that suits their needs.

Yet the shift to online retail began well before the outbreak of the pandemic. As recently as 2019, 13% of goods were bought online globally, up from 6% in 2014. The impact of the pandemic vastly accelerated a trend that was clearly in occurrence, and we saw the size of the e-commerce industry grow exponentially during the pandemic by the equivalent of three years of growth in just a few months. This is all well and good for fast adapting e-commerce and fast fashion brands, but how has this shift in consumer demands altered sustainable shopping practises?

The Rise of Conscious Consumerism
As e-commerce demands have risen, so has the rise in conscious consumerism. There are now a high proportion of purpose-driven consumers that choose products and brands based on their own values, and this is often centred around sustainability. Some consumers even say they would be willing to pay an average premium of 70% for sustainability, which is roughly double the premium from 2020.

Yet conscious consumers are no longer demanding bamboo straws and refillable cups. Today’s consumers are much more sustainably savvy; they need to know every step their item takes, such as where the materials are being made and if they’re sustainably sourced, or a product’s carbon footprint created across the world. The retail industry as a whole generates a huge amount of waste and pollution, from the manufacturing and shipping of products to the use of landfill for unsold inventory. Whilst some retailers have made significant changes to their processes in order to minimise their impact on the environment, there is always more work that can be done.

Hot on the heels of COP26 at the end of last year, and with constant news coverage and papers about the effects of climate change, it is no surprise that consumers are becoming more conscious. Not only this, the effects of social media have meant that consumers are demanding transparency: brands can no longer hide from their conscious customers.

The past 18 months have solidified sustainability’s shift from a ‘nice to have’, to a fundamental part of a brand’s identity, one which the consumer expects to see as standard. There is now an expectation for brands to be transparent on how they are being sustainable throughout their entire supply chain, from how it’s made to how the products get to their homes.

Yet when brands are transparent with their sustainability efforts, this not only endears new customers to join, but also increases the likelihood of brand loyalty amongst consumers, as they now trust and relate to that brand. In other words, when conscious consumers love brands, revenues flow.

Hybrid Retail Solutions
Hybrid retail is the combination and use of both virtual and brick and mortar interactions. With hybrid solutions, it has now become easier than ever for consumers to seek out and engage with sustainable brands.

Retailers can show every step an item takes in the omnichannel cycle, before it reaches the consumer, and the impact it has had on the environment. This includes sustainable shipping options, streamlined management of deliveries and returns, and the avoidance of packaging waste.

However, these are now all staples of sustainable e-commerce that are expected from consumers. Brands must start looking for more unconventional solutions that showcase the future of sustainable shopping, pinpointing the retailer as technologically innovative and sustainable. For some this would be the solution of virtual shopping.

The metaverse has been showing up on social media and in the tech community ever since Meta announced its new branding and focus at the end of 2021. Yet immersive environments such as virtual shopping have been around as fledgling solutions since well before the pandemic. Massive leaps in innovation, with technology has created a varied mix of virtual environments and platforms, which people can use for multiple purposes. Some aspects are already popular with retailers, with augmented reality and virtual reality starting to play a big role in many retailers’ campaigns. This is only projected to increase in the coming months; according to Goldman Sachs, the global market for AR and VR in retail will reach $1.6 billion by 2025.

Filling the CX Gaps
Virtual reality in retail can be used to plan, design, research, and even enhance the customer experience. It offers several benefits when considering how to appeal to consumer wants and needs, especially when they’re constantly changing. Yet, relying on completely virtual environments can create certain holes in customer experience (CX), resulting in a need for more human interaction and personalisation.

Over the past two years, e-commerce and virtual solutions have been prioritised due to a necessity to continue trading during lockdown, but for many retailers, this has come at the expense of having a relationship with their customers. Many solutions were implemented overnight at the beginning of lockdown and this has resulted in practises that weren’t designed for the long term. Now, retailers must reevaluate their approach to the customer experience online in order to remain competitive and keep their consumers engaged.

Many retail managers and leaders who have worked in the industry for years may think that delivering the human touch is a case of continuing what they are already doing, only better. However, in a hugely competitive COVID-19 environment, companies need to step up their game and deliver a tailored, excellent customer experience every time, in both brick & mortar and e-commerce stores. By doing this, consumers are more likely to engage with an already sustainable brand, enabling for higher growth and more funding towards sustainable practises within the brand.

As discussed, customer service online and in brick and mortar stores are two different experiences. Hybrid retail solutions combine both experiences into one, addressing the gap of human engagement online; bringing new aspects of design and CX enhancement that virtual reality creates, with the personal engagement generated from face to face sales reps. Brands are now able to deliver the human touch through e-commerce, emulating the in-store shopping experience online. Example solutions of brands doing this are through live video assistance, where sales assistants can stream themselves walking through the store, demonstrate and showcase products, and answer specific questions from the customer.

Ultimately, the human touch is about bringing customers and retail staff closer together to deliver highly personalised, excellent customer service, at every touchpoint.

The Future of Sustainable Shopping is Hybrid
Hybrid solutions are some of the most sustainable ways that companies can create meaningful engagement with consumers whilst helping minimise consumers’ environmental footprint.

Providing hybrid experiences reduces pressure on brick-and-mortar stores as a significant contributing cause to retail’s environmental damage. They reduce the extensive supply chains needed to fill stores with products, whilst being much more accessible to people around the world, giving businesses the ultimate flexibility in reaching every consumer.

Yet, there are the ever-present questions surrounding whether this will still matter in the coming months, as people start progressing fully back towards the high street due to the phased reopening of society. The simple answer is that hybrid solutions are not designed to replace every aspect of the high street, instead combining the best of both worlds to create a unique, greener experience. Immersive hybrid stores provide the engagement of the physical brick and mortar stores with the versatility of digital, to create the next generation of retail. This should be the goal for any brand or retailer wanting to connect with its audience and whilst maintaining sustainable practices.

In the end consumers want choice: they want brands to be on every touchpoint they are and offer others alongside it. Visualising products online – with an added element of personalisation and human contact – lets people fully engage and invest in your brand. People want to see what a product will look like in relation to quality and style before they spend their hard-earned money on it. They also want to know that how they are engaging with a brand is as sustainable as possible, and hybrid retail solutions like live video assistance allow for that.

Hybrid shopping is still rapidly evolving, but one aspect is clear; for the brands that want to showcase their sustainability whilst staying ahead of the game, hybrid retail solutions like live video assistance are the future.

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