Editor’s note: Max Zalewski is a director with the PRS IN VIVO Innovation Team and is based in Zurich, Switzerland.

Let us recognize the fundamental objective for brands: sell as many units of a product as possible in as many channels as possible. So as far as brands are concerned, the product has always been the star, with retailers functioning as the stage or screen.

In the old days when there were only brick-and-mortar stores, brands learned to dress the star in the package. The packaging was often the first encounter in which the consumer discovered, considered and chose the product. On shelf, it had the ability to convey the story, the brand and product promise. It was a thoroughly three dimensional and tactile in-person experience. In the mostly instinctive, System 1 process of shopping, behavioral principles apply to enhance characteristics like visibility and findability, with the physicality of the package helping to achieve greater contrast and recognition power.

Grocery shopping on smartphone

Enter online shopping. For a brief period we thought of retail as either/or – physical retail or e-commerce, in which online, especially in the grocery categories, represented a small percentage of actual sales. But we have come to recognize a radical shift from either/or to true omnichannel retail. In this new retail environment, manifestations of the star across all channels are influencing shopper choice holistically in ways the industry is just beginning to understand, to drive sales overall.  

The COVID-19 crisis has accelerated – in many regions if not all – consumers’ adoption of e-commerce, be it through click-and-collect (curbside pick-up at a favorite physical retailer), or click-and-deliver (through retailers’ e-commerce platforms or third parties like Instacart). It may be out of necessity as we have been mandated to stay at home. But it is predictable that as the effects of the pandemic extend into the summer, these behaviors might become habits from which consumers will not retreat, affecting the percentage of sales consummated online, even if it remains lower than in physical retail.  

Brands must accelerate their understanding of how to dress the star for success on all stages. 

It may feel overly simplistic, but one of the fundamental challenges brands in this omnichannel reality face is: context matters. 

What we have heard from brands is that as comfortable as they are with optimizing packaging for physical retail, they find the e-commerce environment opaque and confounding.

  • Consumer attention spans during the online shopper journey are usually much shorter as compared to physical retail.
  • Brands are typically limited to utilizing two-dimensional images to promote their products – often small, with variable amounts of descriptive text.
  • Every digital retail platform is unique, often with restrictive layouts that do not necessarily enable the brands to stand out. 

There is a genuine need for reliable metrics that reflect the differences as well as the similarities in how consumers will behave in online and physical retail. This comes down to understanding the context relative to the pack, as well as the impact of images that often stand in for the pack in e-commerce.

Just as omnichannel retail is not either/or, validating the representation of the product – as the pack versus the image of the pack online – should not be done in isolation. Brands need a parallel but integrated approach that encompasses expertise garnered over years of reviewing performance in the physical store, to achieve reliable predictions of consumer choice online. And more than ever, the evaluation of the star in physical retail as well as e-commerce must be flexible, easy, cost effective, based on a genuine behavioral framework and extensible to global markets.

Preparing for a new normal

When the current crisis subsides, equilibrium between physical and online retail inevitably will emerge as some new normal. As we all prepare for that welcome circumstance, I urge brands to look to the experts in research and insight to help get stars ready for performance, wherever they take place!