October 18, 2013, 1:56 PM

Many online shoppers prefer to return items to stores

A survey shows why online shoppers often favor the physical over the digital.

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The web may be sucking up more and more retail dollars, but shoppers prefer to return items to stores even if purchases were not made there, suggests a survey from consulting firm A.T. Kearney.

83% of U.S. and U.K. consumers say they value physical stores over the web for returning items, regardless of whether they bought them in a store, online or via a mobile device. And shoppers who visit a store for any reason are more likely to make an impulse purchase while there—40% of respondents say they spend more than they’d planned to in stores, compared with just 25% who say they do so online, the survey says.

E-commerce sales in the U.S. increased 18.4% year over year in the second quarter, while total retail sales increased 4.1%, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Adjusted for seasonality, web sales accounted for 5.8% of total retail spending in the quarter, up from 5.1% for the same period in 2012. 

A.T. Kearney in February conducted an online survey of 3,200 U.S. and U.K. consumers about their shopping habits for the study “Recasting the Retail Store in Today’s OmnichannelWorld.”

“Stores are important to consumers, but it is critical that retailers with brick-and-mortar assets understand the new role the store network plays in optimizing sales, profits and loyalty across all channels,” says Michael Brown, A.T. Kearney partner and one of the study’s authors. “Despite the dramatic shifts in consumer shopping behaviors enabled by e-commerce and mobile, very few retailers have transformed the physical shopping experience to efficiently and effectively support the new behaviors. “

For instance, a retailer’s web site can show a web shopper that the item she just put in her cart is available in a nearby store, both saving money in getting her that item and drawing her into the store where she may make impulse purchases, Brown says. If that shopper still wants her item delivered, the retailer can benefit by fulfilling her order from the closest store to her, if it has that ship-from-store capability.

“Operationally, shipping or pickup from stores expedites delivery and optimizes inventory across the store network, which does much to improve efficiency and cost savings,” says Dan Farmer, A.T. Kearney principal and co-author of the study.

A.T. Kearney also examined the role of the store versus digital channels by category. Respondents say they discover, research and buy books, TV shows, movies and music in stores about as much as they do on the web, the survey says. However, more shoppers report leaning towards stores for discovering, researching and buying in the following categories: groceries; shoes, apparel and accessories; home and furniture products; and home improvement products and office supplies. In two categories—cosmetics and consumer electronics—respondents say they find most of the products they want to buy on the web, but then try to buy them in stores.

In one category, Internet Retailer data tell a slightly different story. According to 2013  Top 500 Guide data, Top 500 office supplies retailers—including No. 2 Staples Inc. and No. 11 OfficeMax Inc.—together had roughly $18.91 billion in U.S. web sales in 2012, accounting for nearly half (49.67%) of the $38.06 billion in total U.S. retail sales in that category. Online sales are also growing rapidly in other categories, with Top 500 retailers selling apparel and accessories; books, music and videos; hardware/home improvement products; and mass merchants all reporting U.S. web sales growth rates of 22% or greater from 2011 to 2012.

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