Now more than ever, the shopper journey starts online. PSFK Research identifies emerging opportunities for brands and retailers to enhance the key research & engagement stages and drive sales

It goes without saying that this year, increased safety concerns and reduced store hours have led to an acceleration of digital-first shopper journeys. Shoppers are either forgoing physical stores altogether or prioritizing online browsing as a way to supplement their visit. In lieu of being able to demo or try on products in real life, research, reviews and trusted advice become critical to building confidence with 32% of consumers reportedly taking longer to research products or services before they buy.

As a result, retailers and brands are stepping in to provide remote expertise, tailored advice and immersive tools to close the on-to-offline experience gap and encourage sales. Below, we share five strategies from our research that can help retailers in any category build next-level online shopping experiences—regardless of where the final purchase takes place.

Adaptive Homepage Mobile and digital portals are personalizing a shopper’s online browsing experience to reflect their current context, previous purchases and shopping behavior. AI-based curation systems are constantly evolving a user’s digital interfaces to create hyper-relevant displays for each interaction. Taco Bell, for instance, partnered with omnichannel personalization company Certona to enable customized menu experiences and tailored offers for individual mobile app users, taking into account not only customers' dining history but also real-time factors like location and weather for hyper-local relevancy.

Guided Selection When navigating a full product catalog, customers can feel overwhelmed or unsure of how to choose (or customize) products to fit their needs. Retailers are offering AI-enabled decision support that asks customers questions about their preferences and requirements and helps to narrow down choices, working to boost shopper confidence. Mobile platform The Yes is leading the way when it comes to these tailor-made user experiences, leveraging machine-learning algorithms to curate personalized shoppable fashion feeds based on users' responses to “yes” and “no” style questions.

Expert Consultations Retailers are maximizing the human element within video and other digital-led shopping experiences by offering customers high-touch, 1:1 consultations with on-site experts to guide them toward the right purchase. In the automotive category, Hyundai's Genesis Concierge provides a white-glove virtual car-buying experience from discovery through to delivery, with a single expert guiding customers from the moment they express interest in an online vehicle, scheduling their test drive (at home if they like) and later placing their order.

Digital Replicas The idea of digital twins exists in manufacturing as a way to create virtual replicas that can be continuously updated with data from their physical counterparts. This concept is being applied to the retail experience as a way for shoppers to create lifelike digital representations of items, environments and even themselves using real-world data, allowing for virtual sharing and testing. Machine-learning app SuperPersonal does this by leveraging members' info like height and weight, along with a short recording of their gestures like head movements to whip up their personal video avatar who will try on and demo their online apparel choices.

Frictionless Pre-Shopping — Today’s consumers are empowered to do most of the “pre-shopping” on their own. From a company’s perspective, it is important to ensure consistency across channels and streamline the sometimes tedious work done before the in-person shopping experience. Accordingly, companies are automating processes, removing barriers, and introducing digital tools to facilitate a seamless move from online research to physical shopping. Audi Danbury is doing so through its SMART purchase feature, which lets customers preemptively choose their car, budget and apply for financing ahead of their in-person appointment with an associate who already has all the details to speed them ahead to their test drive.

This was a deeper look at PSFK researchers' examination of the research & engagement phases along the consumer path to purchase, just one stage considered in a deep dive into an emerging car-buying journey. For details about the full report, see here.