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Report: Most Shoppers Embrace Merging Digital, Physical Shopping Journeys

Research outlines the modern customer journey and the growing importance of e-commerce experiences that blend physical storefronts, social media and AI.
omnichannel unified shopper journey

A study from ShipStation, Auctane’s web-based shipping platform, and Retail Economics, an independent economics research consultancy, suggests that 73% of U.S. consumers blend online research, physical store visits and options such as buy-online-pick-up-in-store (BOPIS) or in-store returns before making purchase decisions. 

The joint research report, “E-Commerce Delivery Benchmark Report 2024,” outlines the modern customer journey and the growing importance of omnichannel strategies and where retailers may be falling short of new consumer expectations. 

Consumer surveys were undertaken by Retail Economics in November 2023 and include answers from a sample of more than 8,000 nationally representative consumers as well as from 800 Auctane customers who were surveyed across the U.K., U.S., Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Canada and Australia.

“For retailers, the pressure to be everywhere their customers are has never been greater,” Al Ko, CEO of Auctane, said in a media release. “Due to increased choice and tighter wallets, consumers are more selective about the brands they shop with and will settle for nothing less than a unified experience across websites, physical storefronts, marketplace channels and social media.”

Key findings from the report include:

Unified commerce over omnichannel: The report says omnichannel commerce focuses on the customer experience across various, potentially disconnected channels, while unified commerce integrates all business operations and channels onto a single platform. While omnichannel was previously the goal, an evolved, unified approach is now the future. 

Physical touchpoints are crucial: $448 billion in online sales across the U.S. and Canada are dependent on physical touchpoints – such as in-store browsing, BOPIS or in-person returns – accounting for 41% of total online sales in these regions.

Social media and AI emerge as the new search engine: Globally, consumers ages 45 and under are nearly four times more likely to report researching products on social media compared to older generations. A quarter of U.S. consumers were also open to using AI-powered chatbots to research products before making a purchase.

Fast and free delivery landscape: Regardless of where they discovered a product, consumers still expect fast and affordable deliveries for online purchases, with 60% of those surveyed in the U.S. expecting free shipping to take two days or less, a speed only one-fourth of surveyed retailers in the U.S. and Canada currently provide. Meanwhile, more than half of all surveyed retailers cite rising shipping costs as the main threat to their performance, and around 34% plan to increase their delivery charges in 2024, up from 28% a year ago.

Returns remain a complex issue: Convenient returns are important to consumers, but printing out a shipping label and dropping a return off with a carrier holds little appeal. 80% of U.S. consumers prefer alternative return methods, such as having a parcel service pick up their return from their home, using third-party drop-off locations (e.g., kiosks or lockers), or visiting the physical store of the brand to make a return. Meanwhile, only a fifth (19%) of retailers offer out-of-home returns options.

Other notable stats from the report include: 

  • Just 15% of shoppers complete the entire customer journey, from pre-purchase to returns, with no physical touchpoints – even if buying online.
  • 47% of Gen Z are open to pay a small fee to return their online orders.
  • While the worst of inflation has now passed, online retailers remain concerned by rising overheads (37%), weak customer demand (31%) and intense competition (27%) in 2024.
  • The rise of mobile device use and social media and the proliferation of e-commerce has created a competitive “attention economy.” As such, one in two (48%) online retailers plan to increase their marketing activity this year, while more than a third (38%) intend to launch new products and services.
  • As exposure to digital continues to grow, today’s consumers are spending more and more time browsing and exploring retail products. 
  • In the U.K, the typical shopper devotes around four hours per week to researching and discovering products – an extra 1.5 days per year compared to pre-pandemic habits.
  • For homewares, and health and beauty products, shoppers tend to research online, but prefer in-store purchases where tactile experiences still play a crucial role.
  • Consumers’ preferred method of communication is SMS text (39%), trumping email notifications (33%) and online portals or apps (28%). 
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