The Benefits of Online-to-Offline Commerce

When it comes to shopping, I’m pretty close to the male stereotype, meaning I’d rather juggle chainsaws than spend an afternoon traipsing through the heavily perfumed thoroughfares of big-box department stores. Granted, there have been tremendous advances in retail and the consumer experience as a whole, but even smart technology has no answer to the occasionally pushy salesperson, the overzealous coupon clipper or the over-the-top bargain hunter, all of whom detract from a pleasant consumer experience.

There are times, of course, when shopping must be done. Holidays. Birthdays. Weddings. Apology gifts for forgetting one of these events. But that’s why the Internet was invented, right?

Online shopping has revolutionized how we browse and ultimately purchase goods. The pushy salesperson, however, has been replaced with targeted ads that seem to follow you no matter where you go online. “You might also like this.” “Other shoppers bought this.” “Recommended for you.”

These personalized recommendations can be helpful—albeit a bit creepy. As with many new initiatives, a happy balance would be welcome in the world of online shopping. The same can be said for a brick-and-mortar experience. Both could benefit from turning down the volume.

The category of O2O (online-to-offline) commerce comes close to finding a happy balance for the consumer. The definition of O2O is straightforward:  It’s a business strategy that draws potential customers from online channels to physical stores, and here’s a personal example of how it works, and why I like the O2O approach.

I can be a last-minute sort of person, especially when it comes to buying gifts. It was Christmas Eve, and my wife and I were all set to fly from New Jersey for New Orleans early Christmas morning. The trip was planned by my wife, and was a combination Christmas/birthday present for me (I plan her birthday trip in the summer).  I had the very late idea to get her a small gift that represented the city of New Orleans.

I thought she’d like jewelry, something in the form of the fleur-de-lis—the symbol of New Orleans. Or, in simpler terms, it’s the New Orleans Saints logo of French origin.

Off I was to Macy’s Website. Less than five mouse clicks later, I was able to determine one of its stores nearby had a small diamond fleur-de-lis necklace. It was marked down a substantial amount, and it really wasn’t all that expensive to begin with. But it was just what I was looking for.

I drove 30 minutes to the mall on Christmas Eve. Now all I had to do was find this diamond in the rough. Macy’s was buzzing with activity, but shoppers were in good spirits, and the salespeople in the jewelry department (God bless ‘em) were keeping it together. I waited several minutes for a salesperson to offer assistance. She was exasperated, but still sweet. I described what I was looking for, told her the Website showed this store had some in stock. She looked into the distance, said she recalled seeing them, but didn’t know exactly where. She seemed to appreciate this dopy guy looking for an inexpensive, tiny fleur-de-lis pendant on Christmas Eve, which I, in turn, appreciated. She spun a few racks of jewelry, but came up with nothing.

“Sorry. Maybe on the other side?” she offered with a shrug. I thanked her for her time, wished her a Merry Christmas and walked toward the other jewelry section.

I again waited for another salesperson, who was equally exasperated and equally sweet. But she had little help to offer.

“Maybe over there?” she said, pointing back toward the direction in which I had started my search.

I circled the glass cases and the sparkling racks set above them several times. Nothing. But I had faith in Macy’s inventory system. I believed in the store’s technology. I believed in SKUs and PLUs and all that makes the supply chain efficient. I believed in the power of commerce. I believed in the ever-powerful World Wide Web.

But it seemed it wasn’t meant to be. My search was an empty one. Someone, somewhere, must have entered data incorrectly—or not at all.

I began to walk out of the jewelry department with thoughts of checking another department store, but I had had my fill of shopping. I’ll find something in New Orleans, I told myself.

As I left the jewelry department, I noticed, on a freestanding display near a main walkway, several racks of necklaces. They were cheap. They were shiny. And there, on the back side of the display, was the elusive fleur-de-lis necklace I had set out to acquire.  I plucked one from the display and headed to the nearest register, thrilled that this thing really existed. As I waited to pay, I saw the first salesperson who helped me.

“Did you find it?” she asked.

I nodded, smiled.

“Oh, good for you!” she said.

It was a moment of shared accomplishment. It was a small accomplishment, in every sense of the word, but it showed us there is order in the world. It showed technology has a way of helping us discover many things. Even a tiny pendant in a very large department store.

Patrick K. Burke is senior editor of CIO Insight.

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