Comma Consulting founder Greg Randall asks what is the one thing separating physical retail from online retail?

Looking from the consumer's perspective in the type of experiences they are presented with.

This one thing is the reason why physical retail converts considerably higher (20% to 40% range) than online retail (1% to 4%).

Answer: Rules!

The rules (or the 'rules of engagement') governing how a retailer should be engaging with a consumer are exponentially different online to in-store because eCommerce technologies and the supporting business systems are governed by rules.

This concept of rules is the key to improving online experiences.

Understanding this dynamic first requires an assessment of why physical salespeople are effective at selling.

The In-Store 'Rules of Engagement':

When retailers work to create sales employees to become effective selling machines, they train people to do the following:

  1. How to effectively greet people initially to great a good first impression
  2. How to immediately build rapport
  3. How to listen to a person's needs and then guide them to relevant products
  4. How to take product knowledge and translate it into benefits - this is all about presenting relevant information that contributes to a person's purchase decision making
  5. Closing techniques - understand when the need has been fulfilled and guide people to the checkout

All of the above training is designed to enable the delivery of a highly personalised and relevant one-to-one experience between salespeople and consumers in a face-to-face setting.

Why is this hard to replicate online?

The training listed above is designed for salespeople to react and respond to verbal cues that are provided by a person. Though salespeople are given training and information to be effective, ultimately, the above experience is not rules-based.

Salespeople are not provided rules to abide by when it comes to engaging and interacting with people. To be effective, this interaction must feel natural, not appear scripted, and make a person feel this engagement is on his/her terms.

For a consumer to remain engaged in a face-to-face interaction, they want information presented based on their own information-gathering needs.

This is how and why a face-to-face interaction feels personalised and is the foundation to amazing in-store interactions and is why physical retail converts higher than online.

Poor Salespeople

For a moment, pause and reflect on when you have had a poor experience with a salesperson in a physical setting. Commonly, one of three things would have occurred: 

  1. The salesperson loved the sound of his/her voice and presented information that was not relevant
  2. The salesperson did a poor job of presenting information - the salesperson used 'jargony' language you did not understand
  3. When you stated what you wanted/needed, the salesperson presented products that did not fit your need

In summary, the experience felt like the salesperson did not understand your needs, was irrelevant, and just wanted to sell you anything they could. If one (or more) of the above happened to you, did you buy from that salesperson?

Of course not.


Technologies Require Rules

Conversely, every eCommerce technology (and the various connected business systems) can only operate with pre-defined rules. This will never change.

And even though Artificial Intelligence (AI) continues to boast it will automate thinking and enhance experiences at scale, it too must conform to rules.

The crux of an online channel's underperformance is always because the rules in play are poorly designed and not aligned to how consumers want to engage with a retailer online.

Another way to put it is, consider the above comments of the poor salesperson you would never buy from. This is what underperforming online channels do all day every day:

  1. If the site has good content, but it's hidden and/or presented in the wrong places (content presentation rules are flawed)
  2. The behavior of functional elements is not intuitive (the rules that govern functionality behaviors are flawed)
  3. The layouts of pages are poor (the rules governing page element and page content are flawed)
  4. Inventory availability is confusing (business system rules feeding the site are flawed)
  5. The experiences on mobile are difficult for people to engage with (the rules governing rendering content and functionality on small screens are flawed)


Retailers can spend millions on an enterprise eCommerce technology, however, if the rules that govern its engagement are flawed, a retailer will never gain ROI on that investment.

The first step for every retailer is to construct a planning methodology to drive a comprehensive listening process that helps guide the rules of the eCommerce technology and all supporting systems.

Then retailers seek out the technologies that can follow these rules or the business changes its existing technologies to comply with the new rules.

This is the foundation to constructing and scaling personalised online experiences.

If interested in learning more about how technology can enable these business changes, click here.

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