If your business is brick-and-mortar retail, you already know that more shoppers are going online. In fact, according to the Walker Sands 2014 Future of Retail study  (PDF), just 1 percent of consumers never shop online, and nearly two-thirds (62 percent) shop online at least once a month.
Free and fast shipping, free returns and exchanges, and the ability to return items purchased online in-store are among the top factors that are convincing consumers to buy online. In other words, online retailers are making shopping online more like shopping in-store, making consumers more comfortable with it.
What Do Walker Sands’ Findings Mean to Your Business?
If you have both a brick-and-mortar and online component, the key word is “seamless.” Consumers want a simple, unified experience, whether they are buying from you online or off. They want to buy things online and return them in-store, and vice versa.
If your business is brick-and-mortar only, there are still some areas where brick-and-mortar retailers have the edge. Food/beverages and luxury goods are the categories where shoppers feel least comfortable buying online.
In addition, while more people are getting comfortable buying big-ticket items online, the percentage of shoppers who do so is still relatively small. Fewer than half of shoppers will spend more than $500 on an item online without seeing it in person first and fewer than 10 percent will spend more than $1,000.
That’s great if your store sells major appliances, furniture, high-end jewelry, artisanal foods or similar items that consumers want to see, touch and test before the buy it.
But what if you sell apparel, accessories or other products that people feel comfortable buying online?
How to Stay Ahead of the Online Competition
Interact on Mobile
Consumers love using their mobile devices as part of the shopping experience, either before they head out to your store or while they’re in the store. Nearly two-thirds use a mobile device to research products while they’re in a brick-and-mortar store.
They also love getting coupons and offers on their mobile phones.
Consumers want options when it comes to everything—including how they pay. Cash is no longer king: Forty-three percent of consumers haven’t used cash in the last three days, 23 percent haven’t in the last week, and 5 percent never use cash.
You not only need to accept credit and debit cards, but you need to go beyond that to even more convenience.
For instance, more than half of consumers in the study say they’d be more likely to shop at a store offering self-checkout via a mobile device. You may not feel comfortable offering self-checkout, but why not try letting your sales assistants check shoppers out on smartphones or tablets using tools like Square  or Intuit GoPayment ?
Customers want to feel part of your retail business, and loyalty programs can help. Apps such as Belly  or Perka  make it easy for both you and your customers to track visits and purchases and manage their rewards.
By using loyalty apps, your salespeople can even get alerted when a “VIP” customer is making a purchase.
Customers love Amazon for many reasons, but one is that it gives them personalized recommendations based on past purchases. Depending on what data you gather about customer purchases, you can do this yourself by sending email offers and alerts.
But take personalization beyond what an online retailer can do. You and your salespeople should work hard to develop relationships with customers, learn their preferences and habits, and make suggestions tailored to what they like.
You can use CRM (customer relationship management) apps to help you keep track of the information. For instance, if you own a wine store and have a regular customer who loves Bordeaux, you can greet them when they come in by letting them know about the new vintage you just got in.
Social media is becoming more crucial than ever for both online and offline retailers. Three in five consumers in the Walker Sands survey regularly interact with brands on social media. The most popular channel is Facebook, where 55 percent of consumers engage with brands, followed by Twitter (21 percent) and Pinterest (10 percent).
If you’re not already active on social media, get started with Facebook, since it’s the site most widely used by all demographics. If your target customers are mostly women, mix in Pinterest, since the vast majority of its users are female.
The number-one reason consumers interact with brands on social media is to get coupons and promotions (78 percent of consumers), but they also want to learn about the latest news and new products from brands (65 percent). Encourage fans to share the coupons, news and promotions to spread the word.
Renting products instead of buying is a growing trend, with rentals expected to grow 46 percent in the coming year. Consumers like renting because it saves money upfront and lets them try new things.
The most popular rental items are books, consumer electronics and tools. But renting can work for other products, too, with formal wear (Rent the Runway ) and designer handbags (Bag Borrow or Steal ) being just two entrepreneurial success stories.
Consider adding a rental component to your store if it works for what you sell.