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Retailers Implement Hybrid Shopping Experiences to Adapt to Covid Disruption

Retailers are once again contending with capacity restrictions, masking mandates, and social distancing measures designed to ensure the health and safety of customers and employees. That means fitting rooms are closing, and returns are on the rise.

The so-called “buy and return loop” that stores faced during the height of the pandemic is back, and it’s a major burden for fashion retailers across the country. According to Britt Mills, senior director of customer experience at the digital consultancy Mobiquity, more shoppers are being forced to skip the dressing room due to in-store safety protocols, and since they can’t try on items, that leads to a higher likelihood of returns. 

“[Returns are] very costly for the retailer, and [it’s] not preferable for the customer,” Mills says. “When these customers come back to the store to make their return, they are often faced with long lines. Because of this, they may take a look around the store and make another purchase while they are there. If this item also does not meet their expectations once it’s tried on at home, shoppers yet again make a trip back to the store and find themselves in a buy and return loop.”

Forty-two percent of consumers in the U.S. returned unwanted products between March 2020 and March 2021, according to Coresight Research, and the biggest category of returns was clothing. According to the National Retail Federation, retailers incur $106 million in merchandise returns for every $1 billion in sales.

To make the return process easier for customers, Mills says more retailers should be offering direct links to process returns through digital in-app receipts or they could allow for in-store returns when customers buy online. She says it is important that retailers make the process as efficient as possible for customers so that they aren’t deterred from ordering in the first place.

Virtual Solutions

Virtual fitting rooms are one way that retailers are allowing customers to try on products when their store facilities are shuttered. Shoppers upload photos or videos of themselves, or choose avatars, to see what they’d look like in makeup, clothing, jewelry, and more. Although scaled data is scarce, the retail technology company Zeekit says it’s seen a 36% reduction in return rates since using virtual fitting rooms.

“There is a time and place for virtual fitting rooms, and we have seen that many retailers have adopted this in response to the pandemic,” Mills says. “So far, this technology has been more successful when selling accessories and makeup vs. clothing. This is because customers still prefer to try on clothes themselves rather than relying 100% on virtual fitting rooms.” 

While virtual fitting rooms have been convenient during the pandemic, Mills says they must continue to evolve if retailers want this to be the preferred try-on method for customers, rather than a technology simply used out of necessity.

“If retailers are servicing an existing customer who knows their fit and size, virtual fitting rooms might offer a new value, which could strengthen the loyalty with a customer,” Mills says. “This technology likely does not help to build relationships as much as it helps to add potential value for the customer using it.”

Another example of a technology that retailers are using to create hybrid shopping experiences is the QR code. Mills says retailers are adding QR codes to product tags so customers can scan items and learn more about the ingredients or material, as well as find other items that match. The QR codes also allow customers to see if specific items are in-stock online or at another nearby location, rather than having to track down a busy store associate.

“While additional touchpoints and experiences are needed to build stronger relationships, these small conveniences can help brands improve customer loyalty,” Mills says. “If retailers want to continue leveraging virtual fitting rooms as the preferred choice for online shoppers, the technology needs to continue to become more custom, reliable, and easy to use.”

Stephanie Miles is a senior editor at Street Fight.

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