From .com to flagship: how retail brands can design the dream online experience

The rise of eCommerce and the experience economy in recent years has been rapid and exciting. But despite retailers enjoying the commercial success of selling their products online, and physical stores becoming places to truly engage with a brand, the two channels have often remained separate and distinct.

Simply put, eCommerce design encourages transaction whilst experiences bring a brand to life. But with the Covid-19 crisis diminishing physical sales channels, eCommerce has become more important than ever. It is both the key sales device and intermediary replacement of the experiences offered in-store. Even as retail stores reopen, half of British shoppers plan to visit the high street less frequently than before the pandemic, emphasising the ongoing role of the website in offering the full brand experience.

Despite eCommerce being anticipated to reach 22% of total global retail sales by 2023, the online experience of many retailers leaves much to be desired. At present, the functionality of convenience takes priority. Covid-19 has accelerated eCommerce optimisation strategies to ensure commercial delivery but it is now more crucial than ever for brands to start viewing their online channel as a true brand home - as much as the physical flagship store has ever been.

To help retailers understand the current limitations of eCommerce and how it can be improved, we use DEL; a FITCH framework which categorises a customer journey into three mindstates: Dreaming, Exploring, and Locating, to then understand how retailers can best react to different shopping missions. In the ‘Dreaming’ mindstate, customers are looking to be inspired and discover new products, and in the ‘Exploring’ mindstate customers are browsing and looking for validation in their choices. eCommerce, so far, has been designed to only support ‘Locating’ missions, where the consumer is ready to make an easy, frictionless payment - with no true opportunities to be excited, learn something new or gain emotional satisfaction.

So how do brands translate the idea of ‘experience’ to the digital world, and cater to the dreaming and exploring mindstates?

Brand storytelling

Telling brand stories online is integral for building a brand home which acts as a space for category information, immersion and purchasing, without a hard sell. Here, brands need to capture the imagination of their customers by leading with content which inspires them within a wider lifestyle message. They can then introduce content to help those on an exploring mission to navigate from there. is a great example of a brand doing just this. On arrival, the user finds simple, but sweet animations across the site which establishes the brand tone. A storytelling approach directs users through the benefits of sleep, along with interactive explanations of the science. Once they’ve had the opportunity to ‘dream’, there is a deeper dive into product ingredients – catering to that exploring mindstate.

When it comes to purchasing the product and its app subscription, the site hosts clear navigation without the overt standardised ‘add to basket’ format, therefore making it simple for customers to fulfil a locating mission and make their transaction.

Online experiences

Whilst digital will never replace the important role that physical stores play in the retail and wider brand experience, there is still an opportunity for brands to build an online world that excites customers. Much like the museum sector offering virtual tours, creating immersive experiences will be key to this.

The beauty sector, a champion of experience-led retail, is currently leading this charge. Beauty stores have transformed in recent years to become less about the beauty counter and more about the beauty community, and so stores have become destinations rather than purchase points. Digital touchpoints are integrated in-store to enhance the experience and community spaces are created to bring together like-minded people and ideas. We’re now seeing this technology and community focus migrate online.

Given rising concerns over health and hygiene, it’s likely to be a behavioural change that sticks. We are seeing brands like MAC Cosmetics implement AR beauty tests through their eCommerce and brand ‘dot com’ platforms as digital solutions to physical challenges. Meanwhile, Space NK is launching digital events programmes that offer expert clinics and follow-along treatments in collaboration with its beauty community, in order to replicate that 1-1 aspect and other human-based touch points experienced through in-store services.

As we think about the future of retail formats, we must consider eCommerce as an emerging hotbed for experience. Online flagships are the future: they are the place between your physical flagship stores and your commercial ‘add to basket’ channel where meaningful interaction, and dreaming, can flourish.

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