Understanding the Pre-Shopping ROBO Mentality

The term “ROBO” (Research Online, Buy Offline) was coined by Yahoo to describe the growing number of consumers who research online but buy offline. Online “pre-shopping” has become a common activity prior to a variety of purchases. According to Forrester, online research will influence US$1 trillion in offline sales by 2012, making it imperative that retailers understand the full impact that their online presence — as well as those of their competitors — may have on consumer in-store behavior.

Understanding ROBO behavior is particularly important when selling “big-ticket” items. Big-ticket purchases require more research and consideration due to higher price points and their high degree of personalization. Furniture, mattresses, appliances, flooring and home decor are all examples of products that consumers are spending a significant amount of time researching online prior to purchase.

What should retailers be doing to better understand and meet the needs of ROBOs while they are in this “pre-shopping” mindset? Whether the ultimate purchase is made online or at a local store, retailers needs to take the necessary steps to ensure they are providing a seamless cross-channel customer experience that ultimately makes a sale. When executed well — and with ROBOs in mind — e-commerce sites can become a critical tool to help stores compete both locally and chain-wide.

Localize Online Merchandising to Match Local Stores

During their “pre-shopping” phase, ROBOs may start their research online then visit their local store, then perhaps go back online. Because the typical decision cycle for big-ticket items is much longer than for other purchases, this cycle may be repeated several times. For the ROBO, there is little difference between online and offline store formats — they expect to see the same offering in-store that they do online. For example, if you advertise a television at $699 online, but the price is marked $799 in-store or is not available at a location near the customer, ROBOs quickly become frustrated and may click (or walk) to your competition. You should always assume that customers have done their research online before ever stepping foot in your store, especially for big-ticket items.

To make this process seamless, a critical starting point is ensuring that merchandise selection and pricing is consistent between local stores and online. The first step for a retailer is localizing the merchandise experience online by recognizing a user’s IP address or simply asking them to choose their location. Product selection and pricing can be customized to each user’s specific geographic region.

Build Credibility Through Rich, Synchronized Information

In addition to localizing your online offering, build ROBO confidence by providing the research information they seek. When merchandising your e-commerce site, err on the side of too much information rather than too little. Product specs, descriptions, customer reviews and images are all extremely valuable to ROBOs. Make your online store as informative as your best salesperson (and make sure your salespeople would say the same thing in a store that a ROBO would see online).

Specific examples include:

  • Products: Synchronize your online products with your store systems daily, updating SKUs, relationships between items and detailed product information. This is particularly vital for the big-ticket category.
  • Regional Pricing: Update pricing daily, including regional sale and regional pricing if applicable to ensure a seamless Web-to-store experience.
  • Store Info: Update locations and contact information regularly.
  • Find Stores With an Item: Allow customers to lookup nearby stores that actually display a product based on store inventory levels.
  • Reviews: Allow customers to see consumer reviews of products and other user-generated content from shoppers in their region.
  • Cross-Selling and Recommendations: Provide customers with personalized, localized recommendations for merchandise based on preference data of other customers in their area.

Provide Accurate, Local Delivery Information

In addition to merchandise selection and pricing, a pivotal factor in a ROBO’s research is often delivery times and shipping requirements for their purchase. This is especially true for big-ticket items that often have complicated fulfillment requirements. Giving a customer localized information about the best possible delivery times, lowest delivery cost, and in-store pickup options for their particular location can be the deciding factor in making the sale or driving them to your competition.

To make this process accurate, online inventory levels should be updated in real-time, with localized delivery and pick-up dates based on stock and incoming purchases. This synchronization is equally critical to ensuring that items researched online are available in-store for customers at the moment they are ready to purchase them.

Integrate In-Store and Online Offers and Promotions

Since the research cycle is typically much longer for ROBOs considering a big-ticket purchase, the impact of relevant and compelling promotions can often be the driving factor in getting them to purchase — in store or online. To make this process seamless for the customer, it’s important to fully integrate your online store with the marketing and promotional programs in place for your brick-and-mortar stores. E-commerce tools can help you to align your site with your promotional calendars and display online in-store events, promotions, sales, coupons and finance offers. When optimized, these tools will create a better customer experience online, extending the value of materials created for in-store customers. Localized promotions and offers can include:

  • Online Sales: Allow customers to view branded sales events, including promotional pricing and event materials that coordinate with local TV, print and store visuals.
  • Dynamic Fliers: Recreate local print fliers and catalogs online, linking them directly to your localized e-commerce offering.
  • Localized Coupons: Allow customers to use local coupons to receive discounts, bonus items, free shipping or other custom offers both in-store and online.
  • Financing: Offer information on how customers can finance their orders with the same deferred payments offered in-store.
  • Clearance: Include discounted clearance items in the Web store to ensure efficient liquidation of excess local odds and ends.
  • Search Engine Marketing: Use geotargeted online advertising to drive new customers to local sale events — online or in stores.
  • Email: Use localized email to close customers online and in stores, leveraging locally available offers.

As online retailing moves beyond the sale of simple, UPSable products, ROBOs are becoming a critical customer segment for brick-and-mortar retailers to embrace, particularly in big-ticket markets. By understanding how the ROBO shops, and synchronizing your online presence with your local stores, retailers can provide the seamless cross-channel experience these shoppers seek and capture their business — through whichever channel they ultimately choose to buy.

Carl Prindle is president and chief executive officer of Blueport Commerce.

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