Should I Buy Online or in Person? Brand’s Influence On My Store & Online Shopping Experience

By: Jenna Smith, Senior Partner, Smith Design

As a busy brand professional and millennial mom, I am constantly trying to maintain a balance of demands both personally and professionally.  So when it comes to shopping, I find myself strategically planning my purchases in-person vs. online. As much as my “packaged good loving” self enjoys a leisurely stroll through the store, sometimes the convenience of technology is too good to pass up.  So, when the need arises to purchase a packaged product, “should I buy online or in person” is usually the first question that comes to mind. The more familiar and predictable a product, the greater chance I have to buying it online. However, the more subjective the experience I have with a product, the more likely it is that I will "perceivably” benefit from buying it in a store.

But, I do have to ask if that is true? Do I benefit from buying some products online vs in person and how does packaging design influence that perception? 

I love that as an online shopper, I have no pressure to buy since I can always come back to my cart. I can read the product reviews; search sites for comparable prices and deals, and generally feel unhurried when it comes to purchasing. When it comes to buying something for my kids, I want to feel like I made the smart choice (not necessarily finding the best deal). Satisfaction, however, is delayed because I must wait for items to ship. I cannot connect with the brand and product in-person and always have a small feeling that it is somewhat of a blind purchase. This is because packaging and a tactile experience play important roles in building my brand loyalty for in-person purchases, while price and consumer reviews influence my purchases online. 

This is not to say that CPGs cannot bring value through exposing me to packaging online. The brands that recognize how packaging influences my online shopping experience have an opportunity to see a casual, positive sequence as I share knowledge with others via social networks. Additionally, brands that can find a way to connect with me emotionally and reclaim a point of difference, that is noticeable through their website or interactive information, compel me to dive deeper to learn, try, and discover new products and offerings. While online shopping diminishes the influence packaging has on my initial (and often times impulsive) purchase decision, I am still interacting with that package upon receipt, motivating my overall encounter and future purchases.

On the flip side, ways that brands can keep me engaged in the brick and mortar experience is by continually innovating and refreshing their offerings and packaging so I feel as though I am receiving something unique and different than what is shown online. Distinctive interactive displays, special product presentations, unique packaging materials & applications, and customization add to the overall experience of going to the store. According to Professor Bell’s book “Location is Still Everything", online purchases are significantly affected by which stores are near the consumer and whether they have "trendy and friendly neighbors.” I live in a heavily populated area and many times, I will go to a store because they have an exclusive offer or are providing an interactive event - allowing me to connect with a brand in a way I cannot do virtually. On a more basic level, ingredients, materials, and components are top of mind for products in certain categories, so being able to feel, touch, read labels is a necessity for me. If a brand does not provide a large image of their label or ingredients and/or components are not easily visible online, I assume the purchase must be made in-person. Perhaps, as packaging designers, more attention needs to be given to back of pack aesthetics for products that live in our ever-growing digital world.

Ultimately, I would say my personal shopping experiences are evenly divided between in-store and online.  Soft goods, such as paper towels, are an easy online purchase. I can search for the best deals and my expectations of the product are always met without any surprises or deviations from the norm. Food and specialty items continue to be an in-store purchase since they consists of many fresh ingredients and each piece is unique.

What I do find surprising is that items I never thought would be Internet purchases – shoes, clothes, electronics – are my top searches. However, I have little brand loyalty in these categories and instead make purchases based on reviews and price.  As stores continue to evolve their experiences to combat online retailers and as e-tailers integrate additional ways for consumers to interact with products as they do in-person, or provide instant gratification (ie Amazon Prime Now), it will be interesting to see how packaging evolves for this revolutionary thing we call the internet.

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