Digital vs Physical:A balance is the answer

(Published in The Times of India:

A recent Forbes India article was on point and put the digital vs. physical debate to rest.

Sohrab Vossoughi’s engrossing article rightly addresses the elephant in the room as far as pleasing customers wholly on the digital space is concerned – not everything can be digitally pleasing. And it shouldn’t.

Along with going green, going digital and corporate social responsibility, we need to recognize another aspect of consumer experience that can not be brushed away and needs to get its due place on the table – the experience of walking in to the good old brick and cement showrooms. Technology and the internet of things may have taken over every move and every buying decision today but buying a dress online, for example, will never be the same as walking into the store – unique in its own brand and style, speaking to a salesperson and being able to touch, feel, try and choose the product and then being able to walk out with a bag full and that satisfaction that only this experience can give you.

With bookstores, clothing lines, accessories, groceries and many other consumer industries headed for the e-commerce market, consumer buying behavior is increasingly also bringing to the fore, the need for retail businesses to keep both their online and offline businesses afloat simultaneously. Being an avid reader, I still walk into physical book stores and pick up print copies of books as in my view a kindle or an ipad can not match the satisfaction of the experience of picking up a physical book and turning pages. So the news of popular book stores closing down due to unsustainability in an e-commerce driven environment saddens me. But it is the reality today. The digital space has become the sole biggest competitor of shops and stores as we know them and businesses are clambering to get ahead by bringing about a paradigm shift in their business models and sales structures.

I take another example of a brand like Ikea. Owing to a recent country move, we have had to make several trips to and fro this Swedish home-furnishings giant, following the big arrows that guide us from section to section as we walk along and collect objects to furnish every room of the house. Being able to physically see, touch, assess and choose colors, patterns and visualize the potential setting and then end with a much-needed little cafe to take a break and enjoy a coffee is an experience that the online Ikea store wont ever be able to match. Except that we will never need to leave the house. The experience, nonetheless is very limited and unsatisfying.

Not to mention the dissatisfaction when the actual product delivered turns out to be very different from what you had in mind.

Another example Vossoughi talks about is that of the cinema experience. Netflix and online streaming is a booming market today and one would think that the good old movie halls are headed towards an inevitable demise. But on the contrary, movie halls have been seeing a marked increase in patrons who enjoy their popcorn and Pepsi experience just as much as reclining on the lazy boys that many cinemas have now introduced to match the digital offerings. My husband and I enjoy the variety and comfort of Netflix just as much as we enjoy hitting the movie halls for that popcorn and shared cinema experience.

A study was conducted by Capgemini in 2015 that showed a similar landscape emerging in the automobile industry. While more than a third of the participants in the study said they were willing to purchase cars online, 95% of the participant group still preferred to go to dealerships in the purchase and customization phases. A car is a costly investment after all and the physical look, appeal and experience becomes an integral part of the buying decision. Human interaction also becomes key.

The point is, today the need is to keep the balance. And a smart company will be one that recognizes this and keeps its feet dipped in one pond each rather than moving over completely to one or the other. In such a scenario they will need to up their CRM (customer relationship management) game and ensure efficient and seamless customer care handling for both channels.

Emotional and physical attraction and connection will always be a need in a marketplace where tangible goods are being bought and sold. The digital space speeds up the transactions and logistics but it can’t win the battle of ultimate experiential satisfaction. Technology may be ahead in many ways but it is, after all, no match for human interaction.


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