How Digital Marketing
Can Drive Traffic to Stores
P.K. Kannan

The pandemic is slowly ebbing and retailers are hoping that customers will start coming back to stores at the pre-pandemic levels or even higher levels as customers go on a “revenge shopping” spree post-pandemic to make up for the lost time.  Some customers, missing the physical ambience and experience of stores, would be the first ones to frequent stores, but for others the impulse to visit offline stores may not come naturally, especially after the pandemic.  For such customers, it is important that other communication channels be used to incentivize customers’ store visits. It certainly makes sense for retailers that have only the offline channel to interact with customers to incentivize customer visits. But why should retailers who have multiple alternative channels to interact with customers – online, mobile, delivery options – encourage customers’ store visits?  It is because offline stores are more captive than the online and mobile environments to allow customers experience the store and brand ambience, browse through the store product assortments, interact with the staff (the human touch) and imbibe the wonderful food fragrances in a restaurant or fast-food place and thus enable up-selling and cross-selling opportunities and increase customer spending.  Store visits can also increase repeat visits and strengthen customer loyalty.

So, it is no wonder that retailers are using digital marketing campaigns to encourage customer in-store visits.  Recently, Chick-fil-A ran a promotion on its social media, e-mail and mobile app channels encouraging existing customers to invite a friend who is a non-customer of Chick-fil-A to visit a store and get a promotional deal on its in-store items. Their idea was to promote store visits not only to their customer base but also potential customers unaware of the brand and its offering.  As this example shows, retailers with omnichannel options have the greatest leverage in promoting store visits.  If the retailer does not have an omnichannel presence yet, it might be a good strategy to use online websites and mobile apps to engage customers and build loyalty. Restaurants can provide online ordering options and get their food delivered by the many delivery options available these days.  This will allow customers to reach out and touch the retailer from anywhere and at any time.

There are a myriad of digital marketing options for retailers who have only offline stores to promote store visits. The first is through local advertising in the geographical area – through search engine marketing and local SEO options. These options allow the local retailer to be found easily when customers search for items using keywords. It is always important to get details from existing customers – their e-mail addresses, for example – to market to them directly. Enabling the operation of a CRM system, even in a small scale, can help retailers to track the data of visits and purchases by their existing customers and incentivize frequent store visits through promotions. E-mail marketing works very efficiently for such purposes if it is not over-done (in which case e-mails may end up in spam filters).

A website is indispensable for any offline retail business. It not only allows customers to find the website and offline store information through local SEO and SEM, but also allows features for customers to provide reviews, interact with customers, and build a community of customers. The website can also be used for word-of-mouth campaigns. When it comes to word-of-mouth, nothing is more effective than social media. Setting up brand pages in Facebook and Instagram and having followers on Twitter and TikTok can help existing and potential customers to connect with the brand and share the links. Social media can also be a wonderful tool for promotions. A Washington DC area retailer Georgetown Cupcake built a very large customer base by advertising promotions on its brand pages on social media (first 100 customers get free cupcakes at their stores if they mentioned the flavor of the day) in its early days.  Retailers can also advertise on social media to reach potential customers with the right profile.

Finally, promotional campaigns such as referrals can incentivize existing customers to encourage their friends and family to visit stores. This can reduce the cost of acquisition for the retailers and takes advantage of a strong base of satisfied customer base to do the promotional job for them. To keep up the store visits, a retailer can also look into implementing a loyalty or rewards program. Many fast-food chains offer promotions based on the number of prior visits ($1 off breakfast sandwich) or limited free coffee for 3-months as offered by Panera Bread to keep customers coming back to the stores. These can be efficiently implemented using a mobile app. The faster the retailer implements an omnichannel strategy the easier such implementation becomes. Omnichannel is the way of the future for all retailers.

Dr. P.K. Kannan is the Dean’s Chair in Marketing Science at the University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business.