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Digital vs Physical: Which Experience Is Better?

by Brandon Wright October 25, 2018

Digital is not as sexy as it used to be. Not only are we starting to see the impact of screen time on our mental and physical health but our shopping habits are changing as well.

A recent NY Times article, “Our Love Affair With Digital Is Over,” says it all in the title. But the author, David Sax, went on to say, “Analog, although more cumbersome and costly than its digital equivalents, provides a richness of experience that is unparalleled with anything delivered through a screen.”

That’s a pretty big statement. I thought I would put it to the test and compare shopping experiences with some popular consumer items.

Digital Shopping vs. Physical Shopping

  • Shoes

There was a time when buying shoes online were unheard of. I mean who would buy shoes without trying them on first?

Zappos changed that. They knew they had to change a behavior and did so by having excellent customer service, easy returns, and free shipping. Essentially, they had to make it easy to return the shoes if they didn’t work out.

Free shipping to your customer isn’t free shipping to you. Someone has to pay in the end.

Buying shoes in person allow the customer to try them on, walk around a bit, ask questions and compare to other options.

You can’t wiggle your toes to check the sizing when you’re shopping online.

Winner: Physical Shopping

  • Books

Alright bookworm, did you know that ebook sales are falling while print books are on the rise? When I think of books, I immediately think of reading books as a child.

Imagine you just had your first baby and you are reading your ebook to him on your phone. While reading, your little newborn gets relaxed and sleepy and is on his way to blissful sleep when your cell phone starts ringing and startles little baby awake. That just sounds wrong.

A physical book with bright colored pages where your baby can touch and feel different textures is all part of the experience. You just can’t get that from an ebook.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the rise of audiobooks. In our busy worlds, it’s easier to listen to an audiobook while on your morning commute then juggling your coffee, book, and steering wheel ;).

Winner: Draw between physical books and audiobooks

  • Jewelry

Here’s a thought to ponder: the more personal the product, the more likely the purchase will be done in-person.

A recent survey done by TD Bank found that 59% of consumers ONLY purchase jewelry in person, 34% said they GENERALLY shop for jewelry in-store, 2% said they ONLY shop for jewelry online and 5% said they MOSTLY shop for jewelry online.

There are lots of emotions involved when buying jewelry, which requires comparing and contrasting options, and it’s safe to say that most people like the opinion of an expert (sales associate).

Winner: Physical Shopping

  • Cars

Yes, it’s a thing. You can buy cars online. I guess nothing should surprise me in regards to online shopping.

I don’t know anyone who loves car shopping. It’s time-consuming, exhausting, and annoying. Slicked-back hair, will-say-anything-to-get-you-to-buy, car salesmen don’t have the best reputation.

It makes sense why some people prefer to car shop online. Only communicating via email or text and working directly with the Online Sales Manager.

Here’s the kicker, you still need to set up a test drive and that can’t be done online. Even though most of the communication can be done online ahead of time, a physical visit is unavoidable.

Winner: Physical Shopping

  • Clothes

Clothing is one of the top products that consumers purchase online. But recent surveys still find that the majority of people prefer to shop in brick and mortar stores.

They want to see and touch the product before purchase. They want advice and help from knowledgeable sales associates.

But online shopping can reap better savings. Consumers can find out of season clothing at lower prices. Online stores require less operational expenses which mean there’s more freedom with sales.

Winner: Draw between online and physical

  • Music/Movies

Kids these days will never feel the excitement and anticipation of walking into Blockbuster on a Friday night and staring at the wall of VHS options of movies. You wait all week to be able to watch the newest movie.

More and more people are ditching DVDs (and even cable) and sticking to streaming.

It saves time. No more driving to the store or Redbox to pick out a movie, only to return it the next day.

It saves money. The cheapest Netflix package is $7.99– that’s cheaper than one DVD.

It saves space. No more racks and shelves filled with DVDs and VHS Cassettes, it’s all stored in the cloud.

Music is about the same (RIP Tower Records). Kids these days will never know the nervous feeling when they give their crush a mix tape :). All they have to do is send a Spotify playlist to their crush. It’s as easy as the press of a button.

Though you might be surprised to hear that vinyl sales hit an all-time high in 2017. Yes, I said vinyls aka records, not CDs or MP3s.

Winner: Online Music/Movies

The Relationship Between Digital and Physical Shopping

You can pretty much buy anything online. I mean you can even have a doctor’s appointment through FaceTime from the comfort of your bed. I’m sure you could even get your medicine delivered right to your door, and when you’re sick the last thing you want to do is get out of bed to go see a doctor.

But FaceTiming a doctor means they only get half of the picture. They don’t see you walking in the door with a limp, or hear your heartbeat or even know if your blood pressure is correct because they aren’t actually taking it, you are.

The personal one on one security of being there in-person is gone.

When it comes to shopping, research continues to show that consumers prefer brick and mortar. They want help, they want a personal connection, and they want to put the product in their hands. 

Customer experience is much more powerful in a physical space, and that’s really what the consumer is looking for.

Whether your focus is on ecommerce or brick and mortar, remember, the real winner…. is the customer experience.

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Brandon Wright

Brandon is the Founder and CEO of Clientbook (a clienteling tool for retailers that increases in-store foot traffic and sales).

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