From URL to IRL: Can Appointment Shopping Save Physical Retail?

By
Sebastien Rankin
April 21, 2021

Have you shopped in-store since the COVID-19 protocols began rolling out? 

Chances are that if you have, you noticed the shopping in physical stores is very different from what it used to be, and seemingly every retailer has different measures in place — with the exception of mandatory masks and hand sanitation across the board. 

The other day, I went shopping in downtown Montreal and lived the gamut of pandemic-modified retail experiences. My journey started at the Apple Store. 

Usually their shopping experience simultaneously feels fluid and on the verge of chaos, but this time was different. Rather than just walk in and get what I needed — an iPhone case — I was told by a greeter outside that I needed to book an appointment online.

Wait. An appointment, even just to shop? I thought those were just for trips to the Genius Bar? 

I got over my initial irritation, booked an appointment on my smartphone and made my way inside in less than 2 minutes. When I was inside, I had a Specialist greet me and act as my personal assistant, guiding me to the products I wanted and giving me one-to-one service.

As I walked out of the store, I thought about the two in-store experiences I had just gone through. While Apple’s mandatory in-store appointments were initially frustrating, it saved me 30 minutes of waiting and I got personalized service.

Next, I went to another nearby retail store who carried jeans I liked. I didn’t know if they had those jeans in-store, but wanted to test my luck and try them on in the event they were available. 

But there was a pretty big lineup outside. How bad did I want to try the jeans on? Pretty bad, apparently. I waited in line outside for over 30 minutes. Once I was inside, there were no store associates to help me and I was left to rummage for jeans alone. 

As I walked out of the store, I thought about the two in-store experiences I had just gone through. While Apple’s mandatory in-store appointments were initially frustrating, it saved me 30 minutes of waiting and I got personalized service.

Without appointments? Not so much. 

Would in-store appointments be one of the covid-induced shopping habits with actual staying power? Based on my experience, the pros were certainly promising from a customer-perspective. But what about for the merchants? Was this something only behemoths like Apple could pull off? 

With that, I partnered with the experts at booxi to explore appointment booking and how it has the potential to help both merchants adapt in-store shopping for a post-pandemic world, and consumers overcome the residual trauma of coronavirus-induced social distancing and get back to visiting physical stores. 

What is in-store appointment booking for retail? 

In-store appointment booking is when a retailer lets customers book a specific date and time to visit the store. To offer online appointment booking — whether via the merchants online store, mobile app or their social media page — merchants typically use appointment scheduling software like booxi. 

In some cases, shoppers can also book appointments through the retailer’s chatbot. Whether they’re chatting on Facebook Messenger, Instagram Direct Messenger or WhatsApp, shoppers can book appointments via chat, rather than talking to a human.

In-store retail has a very relevant place in the customer journey, but merchants likely need to shift their focus from the quantity of foot traffic to the quality of that foot traffic.

But what we’re seeing happen more often is shoppers booking in-store appointments (to try on clothes, for example) with the store associate who served them via live chat. In-store appointment booking, paired with live chat and video consultations (also known as virtual shopping) is helping retailers blend the online and in-store customer experience, enabling shoppers to choose how they’re served and which physical and digital touchpoints they want to be a part of their path to purchase. 

What are the benefits of appointment booking? 

For both merchants and shoppers, the benefits of appointment booking are numerous, especially since COVID-19 accelerated certain market trends. Let’s take a look at four benefits, and why they’re so beneficial for both parties: 

  1. Pre-qualify store visits
  2. Manage store occupancy levels 
  3. One-to-one customer service

Pre-qualify store visits 

It’s no secret that COVID-19 has contributed to the sharp decline of in-store foot traffic. Whether it’s a result of ongoing social distancing regulations or residual trauma of the pandemic, large crowds of people in the same indoor space is unlikely to be a part of the retail landscape for the foreseeable future — but that’s not to say that in-store retail is dead.

In-store retail has a very relevant place in the customer journey, but merchants likely need to shift their focus from the quantity of foot traffic to the quality of that foot traffic. In-store appointment booking can help. 

Like most merchants, the majority of transactions are now happening online. But what about those shoppers who appreciate the tactile experience shopping in-store provides? 

With appointment booking, shoppers select the reason for their appointment (for instance, wanting to try on a few pairs of jeans). Store associates can prep a try-on cabin in advance, and even consider which items could compliment what the shopper is trying on. 

Unlike with most walk-in traffic, store associates already know exactly what the shopper is interested in, and have a theoretically higher probability of converting that appointment into a sale. 

What retail stores lose in terms of the volume of foot traffic, they can make up for with the quality of that foot traffic. Paired with guaranteed one-to-one customer service, store associates are in a great position to convert more interactions into transactions.

Offer one-to-one customer service 

Let’s rewind back to my experience at the Apple Store. One of the elements that made that experience pleasant was the one-to-one service I received from the sales associate. My appointment was assigned to them, and they were there to help me (not handle 5+ customers at a time). 

As a consumer, I loved the attention and personalized service. It led to a richer interaction, and I left with more than what I had initially planned to buy because the whole store essentially transformed into a private showroom. That sounds like a win for both parties. 

That’s perhaps one of the most compelling benefits of booking appointments for in-store visits: guaranteed personalized service from the moment you step foot in the door.

And that’s what makes the appointment bookings so compelling both for consumers and merchants. Shoppers get guaranteed one-to-one assistance from a store rep, while store associates spend their time serving pre-qualified shoppers and know exactly what they’re looking for in advance of the interaction. 

That’s perhaps one of the most compelling benefits of booking appointments for in-store visits: guaranteed personalized service from the moment you step foot in the door. We’ll likely see retailers continue to invest in technology and services that differentiate their in-store experience while supporting customer needs.

Manage store occupancy levels 

If one-to-one service was a benefit for shoppers from an experiential perspective, then managing store occupancy levels (and literally having a ledger of occupancy levels) is a benefit from a safety perspective. 

From a technology perspective, mandatory appointments help merchants establish a baseline for how many customers can be in-store at once and assure that limit is never exceeded. In a world where close proximity to strangers is a potential health concern, this is a huge plus. 

And, while we have yet to see the true lingering impact of COVID-19 on consumer shopping behavior, affording shoppers more physical space to move freely through a store with a relative distance between them and the next shopper feels like a premium experience. 

It’s never been more important for merchants to blend safety with convenience. While mandatory appointments for in-store visits may initially be a tough pill to swallow for some, they do help owners balance shoppers’ desire for human interaction with the need for fostering a safe environment. 

How does appointment booking fit into omnichannel retail? 

2020 served as a wake-up call for merchants under-investing in their omnichannel capabilities: if you aren’t able to serve shoppers how they want, when they want, you’re simply not putting your business in a position to succeed. 

Shopping is no longer a question of online vs. in-store, the successful merchants of the future are invested in blending both channels to offer a more homogenous, unified experience to consumers. 

Consumers have widely adopted omnichannel behaviors — like webrooming and BOPIS — into their lives because, for them, it’s convenient. With that in mind, let’s explore how online appointment booking for in-store visits fits into an omnichannel retail approach anchored on convenience. 

Webrooming is no longer a niche behavior 

Webrooming — the process of researching a product online before going to a brick-and-mortar store to make a purchase — is no longer an emerging shopping behavior. It’s commonplace. 

Nowadays, most shopping journeys start online. In fact, webrooming is how nearly 90% of consumers shop. Shopping is no longer a question of online vs. in-store, the successful merchants of the future are invested in blending both channels to offer a more homogenous, unified experience to consumers. 

And this is where online appointment booking and virtual shopping platforms like Heyday come into play. Many consumers looking for a more human touch to online shopping are embracing live chat and video consultations with store associates. In the case of Make Up Forever Canada, one of our customers, those online interactions resulted in a 20% lift in online sales. 

But what about the shoppers who want to physically touch and try on a product before buying? The prospect of booking an in-store appointment and being served by the same sales associate in-store is compelling. It’s literally an extension of their online experience in-store, except now, the sales associate has more context and can serve their customer better. 

This type of behavior entrench itself as normal during the pandemic. Consequently, we see appointment booking as a natural evolution that improves any webroomer’s path to purchase. 

Consumers demand personalization 

Personalization has become table stakes. Our social feeds, search engine results, and the ads we see are all based on our historical preferences and interests. In this environment, it’s only natural for shoppers to extend their desire for hyper-personalization to the in-store experience. 

Why tell a sales associate what you’re looking for when they could know in advance based on your appointment notes? Why fight to get the attention of a sales associate when you could have one assigned to you in advance? Why check inventory levels for out-of-stock products when a store associate could just send you a direct message and let you know they’ve reserved it for you? 

The onus has been placed on merchants to personalize both the online and in-store experience at scale, and appointment booking can be a valuable tool to integrate into their larger omnichannel strategy. Add notes to the appointment, know what the shopper is looking for in advance, give them one-to-one service, and keep the conversation going long after they leave the store. 

Is appointment booking essential or a nice-to-have? 

While only time will tell whether booking in-store appointments online has staying power post-pandemic, it does have an undeniable upside.

IBM reports that COVID-19 accelerated online sales by 20% in 2020. That tremendous growth has both merchants and shoppers rethinking the role brick and mortar locations play in the customer journey. And as stores slowly reopen, the way retail stores operate is likely to change as well. 

For instance, post-pandemic lineups outside stores are relatively commonplace, as is the need to afford each shopper enough space to respect health and safety measures. Unless retail shopping goes back to the way it used to be, appointment booking can very-well resolve lineups and keep both customers and retail employees safe. 

Retail spaces are in a transition period right now. While much of the retail experience is going digital, physical stores are still a valuable touchpoint that helps shoppers touch and discover products, socialize, and immerse themselves in your brand’s identity. 

A blend of technology that helps brands connect with customers online, while safely facilitating in-store visits, can help merchants not only improve their digital customer experience, but their physical store experience as well. 

Interested in learning how to qualify online shoppers and drive more profitable in-store traffic? Talk with Heyday’s sales team today to learn about our integration with booxi’s appointment scheduling platform.