How To Recreate The Physical Shopping Experience Online

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Online shopping has come a long way. Back in the 90s, most of us still shopped exclusively at physical stores. Online stores existed, but they were primitive and came with security concerns. Nowadays, over 80% of the UK population are online shoppers – with 40% of us preferring to shop online than at a physical store. This change in attitude is largely to do with how the online shopping experience has changed.

Online stores have not only become more secure, but they’ve become more interactive and more personal. No longer are we expected to buy sofas and engagement rings based off a single image with no opportunity for human interaction. Instead, we can now view such products from multiple angles with 3D photos and ask questions to virtual staff members about concerns we may have to make much more informed decisions – just like if we were in a physical store.

In the future, online stores are likely to become even closer to physical stores in the experience they offer. This experience is something that’s important to consider if you own an online retail store. How can I make shopping on my site more like shopping at a physical store? Below are just a few tips. 

Treat your homepage like a shop window

Start by considering your homepage. Just like a shop window, your homepage should visually wow people and convince them to take a look around. 

It’s best to keep text minimal, and prioritise images of your products. These should be images of your most exciting products arranged in ways that grab people’s attention. Think about how shop windows use displays using mannequins and props. Online store homepages should similarly show large images of people using your products in a way that tells a story or sells a lifestyle. For example, if you sell camping equipment, you could use an image of a happy family on a camping trip sitting around one of your most exciting tents using various fun camping gadgets sold on your site. 

Of course, shop window displays need to be regularly changed in order to keep them eye-catching. You should similarly change up products you display on your homepage to attract different visitors and keep return visitors intrigued. 

Make your products interactive

The biggest benefit that physical stores have over online stores is that you can physically interact with products. You can feel them, smell them and taste them – all of which you can’t do online.

That said, there are still ways to make online products interactive so that consumers can get a better grasp of what they’re buying. 3D photos can allow products to be rotated and viewed from different angles, while videos can provide visual and audial demos. You could also allow customers to compare products sold in different colours and sizes in order to compare how they look (you could use different sized models to show clothing items in different sizes).

Some sites do offer the option to order free sample kits that allow customers to physically try products – usually in exchange for creating an account or buying a product. Make-up and perfume retailers are a prime example of this. Such free samples can help customers physically interact with products and convert customers. Of course, it does mean shipping out items to customers for free, so you need to only offer small samples that do not harm profits too much.

Allow customers to talk to a staff member

If a customer has a concern in a physical store, they can easily walk up to an in-store staff member and ask them a question. This never used to be something that you could recreate in an online store, however nowadays it is possible by setting up a live chat website

Using an instant messaging chatbox, you can make it possible for website visitors to ask questions to a virtual sales rep. This chatbox could be accompanied by a picture of the sales rep to make it more approachable. You can even send ‘hello, can I help you today?’-style pop-up messages to visitors to instigate interactions. Such live chat features can help increase conversions at a higher rate than simply relying on customers to email you, as it allows website visitors to get an instant reply.

Greet your customers by their name

In a physical store, it’s possible to get to know return customers by their name and create a personal connection. You may think this is impossible to replicate on a website, but it isn’t – not if you encourage customers to create accounts.

Every time a customer that has signed in returns to your site, a personalised ‘welcome back, ____’ message can be automatically triggered to display on your website. This personalised greeting – regardless of the fact that it’s automated – can help customers to feel more valued, and may indeed be key to building customer loyalty online.

There are other similar ways that you can personalise your interactions with customers. This includes personalised product recommendations via emails or ads on your site, personalised thank you messages after completing a purchase and even exclusive birthday deals if you know a customer’s date of birth. 

As already mentioned, all this personalisation requires customers to create accounts first, which means finding a way of encouraging visitors to create an account and not just purchase items as a guest. Incentives like loyalty points, first-time purchase discounts and free/discounted shipping are great ways to encourage customers to create accounts. 

Don’t overcomplicate your return policy

Some people don’t like to buy products like clothing online because returning such clothing can be a hassle if it doesn’t fit. While ideally you don’t want customers returning products (and you can prevent returns by providing detailed product information), you should still provide the option of returns. You should also try to make returning a product as convenient – if not more convenient – than returning a product to a physical store.

This could include sending out a courier to collect the item rather than asking customers to repackage and post it themselves. Return fees may be necessary with some products, but should be kept minimal.

Obviously, you don’t want shoppers taking advantage of a return policy that is too convenient or too generous. This is why you should put limits on how long a customer can return a product after making a purchase (usually about 1 month – although some stores allow 90 days). There should also be strict requirements when it comes to the condition that the product is returned in. This prevents customers wearing clothing for several months, damaging it and then returning it when they no longer want to wear it.

Enable customers to buy and receive the product in the same day

When you visit a physical store, you have the option of buying a product and taking it home that day. This is something that many online stores cannot provide, however advancements in the shipping industries have made it more achievable. 

Using drop-shipping, companies can store products in warehouses around the world. When a customer buys a product, the item can then be shipped out from the closest warehouse available in order to reduce delivery time. By finding couriers that are able to make immediate deliveries in the area, it is possible to deliver products to customers purchased online within the same day.

This will of course cost more money than regular shipping, so you should charge customers extra for it. You also cannot guarantee same day deliveries to all customers due to some customer locations being very remote, and therefore may have to grant it based on the address of the customer. With products that take time to prepare and package, same day delivery will also clearly not be possible. 

Create a community on social media

Small independent physical stores that are able to thrive tend to do so because they develop a community around them. People enjoy having conversations with the owners and fellow shoppers – something that you cannot do on a website. However social media can recreate this experience online. By creating social media pages for your website, you can build an online community made up of people that visit your shop.

How do you create a community on social media? Firstly, you need to create fun and engaging content that gets people leaving comments. On top of advertising products, consider running polls and competitions, as well as starting friendly debates on topics related to your industry. Make sure to reply to comments, as this could help to form relationships  with customers.

Embrace AR and VR

AR and VR will be the future of online retail. Already large brands are starting to embrace this technology. Such tech may be too expensive for many small companies to implement right now, but in the near future it could become much more affordable.

Just what is AR and VR and how will they transform online shopping? AR stands for ‘augmented reality’ and involves adding digital information to photos and live videos. The biggest way it is likely to transform online stores is in the form of virtual fitting rooms. Right now, there’s no way of trying on clothing when shopping on most sites. Virtual fitting rooms will allow customers to use the self-facing camera on their devices to virtually try on items of clothing to see what they look like (much like Snapchat filters, but hopefully one day more detailed and realistic). 

VR ‘virtual reality’ meanwhile involves complete immersion in a 3D virtual world. Online stores could one day become 3D virtual shops that you can walk around using an avatar. These virtual stores could contain fun, interactive product displays. We could see gamification elements coming in to entice shoppers to keep coming back. All in all, visiting an online store could be a very different experience to what we get now.

We’re very proud to bring you this feature in association with Statista, Expert Photography, Click 4 Assistance, McKinsey & Company and

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