January 24, 2022

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Endless Aisles: How to Run a Low Inventory Store and Keep Up with Demand

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Endless aisles is a strategy retailers use to help in-store shoppers order products through an online store during their visit. 

Physical retail is more competitive than ever. While retail rent prices have dropped for the first time in nine years, inventory management is becoming a greater struggle. Customers expect as much product selection as possible. Leaving empty-handed is an experience they don’t want. 

With an ecommerce store, it’s easier to meet those demands. Your entire product catalog is there, waiting to be purchased. 

A brick-and-mortar location? Not so much. With a finite amount of shelf space, stores can only stock a limited number of products. But there is an option for retailers that run low on stock: Endless aisles. 

This guide explains how to use endless aisles to merge your online offerings with your in-store locations. The goal? To bring the best shopping experience possible to your customers, wherever and however they buy. 

Table of Contents

What are endless aisles? 

Endless aisles is the concept of ordering items online for shoppers that visit a physical store. Shoppers can order out-of-stock items that aren’t available to take away, but can be shipped to their home a few days later. It’s also known as “buy in store, ship to customer” for this reason. 

Offering endless aisle services in your retail store is like carrying all the products you have available online in your actual store. It’s essentially the flip side of the buy online, pick up in store option (BOPIS, also known as “click and collect”). 

Retailers can offer buy in store, ship to customer in several ways. They can create a self-serve experience where shoppers can readily purchase items in-store and have them shipped to their home. Alternatively, store associates create virtual carts for customers as they shop and either complete the purchase in-store and ship it to their address, or send the virtual cart to their email address so they can complete the purchase online at a later date.

The benefits of endless aisles

Before we get into the challenges endless aisle can pose, let’s take a look at some of the benefits it offers your brick-and-mortar store.

Hold less inventory

If you operate your retail business both online and offline, endless aisles are a great way to sell your full product catalog without having to carry inventory for each item at every store location. 

Instead, you can keep extra stock in your warehouse, at larger store locations with more shelf space, or with third-party fulfillment centers like Shopify Fulfillment Network to ship directly to your customers. All three strategies give in-store shoppers access to more of your products without complicating your inventory management. 

Build customer loyalty 

By offering your customers more selection at your brick-and-mortar locations, you also decrease the chance that they’ll go elsewhere to spend their money. 

Research shows that 37% of in-store shoppers will visit a different store if the item they’re looking for is out of stock. Almost half would walk out and abandon the purchase entirely. Endless aisles help you capitalize on the buyer intent that brought them into the store in the first place without losing sales due to low stock.

✨ GET INSPIRED: Footwear company Allbirds uses Shopify POS features like ship-to-customer order fulfillment to close sales—even for products they don’t carry in-store. Endless aisles help maintain high store conversion rates while minimizing inventory complexity across its 35+ store locations.

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Plus, by educating your audience about your online offerings (and offering a great user experience from order to delivery), you’re increasing the chance they’ll become online shoppers in the future. 

This omnichannel strategy appeals to the 73% of shoppers who use multiple channels throughout their shopping experience—many of whom make more frequent purchases from brands who allow them to do so.

Our findings showed that omnichannel customers loved using the retailer’s touchpoints, in all sorts of combinations and places. Not only did they use smartphone apps to compare prices or download a coupon, but they were also avid users of in-store digital tools such as an interactive catalog, a price-checker, or a tablet.

Reduce online returns

If you’re selling through an online and physical store, you’ll have noticed one huge difference between the two: return rates. Ecommerce merchants see 11% higher return rates than brick-and-mortar stores. Online shoppers can’t interact with the product before they buy it. 

Endless aisles solve that problem. Take it from Jessica Kats, ecommerce and retail expert at Soxy, who has seen a significant reduction in returns and exchanges since its store introduced this option. “Shoppers check the quality of the product and decide if it’s right for them in the store, so when the order is shipped to them, it’s precisely what they want.”

Jessica says Soxy’s customer satisfaction and retention metrics have also surged ever since giving shoppers this buy-in-store, ship-to-customer option: “About 27% of our in-store shoppers go for this option, while this number jumps to 41% during the holiday season.”


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The challenge of endless aisles

If you’re thinking about implementing endless aisles for your retail store, overcoming inventory management challenges is critical. You don’t want to be selling a product that shows it’s in stock online only to find out that it’s actually not available. These stockouts cost retailers an estimated $1 trillion every year.

To keep track of multiple orders happening across a variety of sales channels, use a commerce platform that centralizes your sales and inventory to the same back office.

Shopify, for example, unifies your sales and inventory data across each of your store locations, warehouse, and online store. Whenever a product is sold, returned, or exchanged, inventory levels update in real-time to reflect those changes. 

The result? The inventory levels shoppers see on your website and store associates see in Shopify POS are always accurate and reflect the stock you carry in your warehouse and physical stores.

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Communication between the supply chain and retail stores is always a challenge, but it’s easily solved with an inventory management system that updates in real-time.

Jessica Kats, ecommerce and retail expert at Soxy

3 types of endless aisle strategies

Ready to offer this customer experience to offline shoppers? Here are three endless aisle strategies you can use to place online orders on behalf of in-store shoppers. 

Interactive kiosks

An interactive kiosk is a touch screen for in-store shoppers. Also known as a virtual or endless shelf, customers can browse an online product catalog, view item specifications, and purchase something to ship to their home.

The benefit of in-store kiosks is that shoppers can complete those tasks without the assistance of a retail store associate. It’s great if you’re cutting costs: not only do you need less physical space to serve offline shoppers, but fewer store associates mean lower monthly salaries staking a claim on your profits.

Create these interactive kiosks with virtual shelf technology from:

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Showrooming

Did you know that 60% of consumers expect retailers to dedicate more floor space to experiences than products by 2025? Brands are investing heavily into experiential retail to stay ahead of the curve. 

A commissioned Forrester Consulting study conducted on behalf of Shopify asked how brands are improving these in-store experiences over the coming year. Almost half (46%) said they’re investing in showrooming, an endless aisle strategy where shoppers browse items in-store and complete their purchase online through:

  • QR codes: shoppers use the camera on their mobile phone to scan the QR code on the product’s price tag or display signage, which takes them to that item’s product page. It’s the simplest, low-tech way to offer endless aisles. All you need to use is Shopcodes or a QR code generator to get started. 
  • Email carts: a store associate adds items to a shoppers cart as they browse. Next, they send a virtual cart to the shoppers email address for them to quickly view and purchase the items they were interested in. If the shopper completes the purchase, both the store associate and store location are credited as the point of purchase–even if the transaction is completed online.

Showrooming is effective because shoppers get to complete their purchase via a mobile phone. Almost three quarters of US shoppers consult a mobile device when shopping in-store. It’s so popular that 63% of retailers plan to allow customers to purchase items through customer-owned mobile point-of-sale checkout (such as endless aisles) by 2022.

💡 PRO TIP: Use Shopify POS email carts to ensure showroomers buy from you rather than competitors once they leave your store. Add items to customers’ virtual cart, send their wishlist by email, and credit your store for making the sale—even if it happens online.

Order fulfillment

Retailers don’t need stock on-hand to operate an endless aisle. Rather than using interactive kiosks, there’s the option to dropship out-of-stock products directly to a customer’s address. Essentially, you take a customer’s order at a retail location through your ecommerce store. The customers’ order data is passed through to a third-party supplier. It’s their job to pick, pack, and ship the product. 

The benefit of this endless aisle strategy is a continuous customer experience. Shoppers don’t have to deal with multiple suppliers, but they still get access to a wide product assortment when purchasing through your store.

The best part? Retailers have access to endless inventory without having to warehouse it. It’s a retail strategy that works even if you have the smallest of stores to work with. 

While it is beneficial to some merchants, be cautious about the complexities of working with a third-party provider to stock your endless aisles. Research your partners properly, make sure you do test runs, and have an iron-clad process in place before you launch a partnership. 

Most importantly, remember that it’s your retail business customers are buying from. They’ll attribute the experience to your brand, so it’s important to make a good impression.

Endless aisle examples

Ready to implement an endless aisle in your retail store? Here are three examples to draw inspiration from. 

Moriarty’s Gem Art

Moriarty’s Gem Art is a small jewelry business with a flagship retail store in Indiana. It uses endless aisles to process orders from in-store customers who want their items to be shipped as gifts.

“We are then able to wrap them, and add them to our list to ship out with all the other online orders we received through our ecommerce Shopify website,” its marketing manager Jeff Moriarty says. “Doing this makes it much easier for us to track the order through our normal processes rather than trying to record it all in person.”

While Jeff says the buy online, ship to home option isn’t ultra popular year-round, “during the holidays, about 5% of our customers take advantage of this— and the ones that do, love that we offer it!” 

Walmart

Walmart is one of the largest retail chains with more than 3,500 superstores across the US. In some of its stores you’ll find interactive kiosks, appropriately positioned at the end of each aisle. 

In-store shoppers use the kiosks to browse items it offers for sale. Should they find something they like which is out of stock in the store itself, they add it to a virtual shopping cart. The customer prints a receipt from the kiosk and pays for their order at the checkout. They’ll get a text message when it’s ready to collect—an endless aisle strategy that drives shoppers back in-store, rather than shipping to their home. 

This endless aisle strategy has clear benefits for Walmart—the biggest being they don’t need thousands of SKUs on hand to serve its thousands of customers. That’s why it incentivizes shoppers to use the interactive kiosks with cost savings of up to 10% on items ordered through the kiosk. 

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Oakland Athletics

Ever been to a sports game and visited the on-site store to buy merchandise afterwards? It’s hectic to say the least. Hundreds of people flock to the store in just a few hours either side of the game. Stock quickly sells out, especially in popular sizes.

Instead of having shoppers leave empty-handed, baseball team Oakland Athletics uses endless aisles. Customers scan a QR code that directs them to the product page on its ecommerce website. 

It’s beneficial to shoppers for several reasons:

  1. They can purchase items that are out of stock in-store.
  2. They can browse “exclusive” merchandise only available through the ecommerce store. 
  3. They don’t have to carry around shopping bags if they’re purchasing before the game. Their order is shipped directly to their home a few days later.

As for the retailer, they only need to stock limited quantities in-store. Plus, more online orders means less queues at the checkout desk. Oakland Athletics’ retail team can process in-store purchases faster.

Implementing endless aisles at your store

Not every strategy is right for every retail business. Endless aisles are no different.

If you currently operate large retail stores with tons of shelf space and don’t have issues keeping items in stock, then endless aisles might be redundant for you. But if you’re looking to downsize your retail footprint or cut back on inventory overhead, endless aisles are worth considering.

If you think endless aisles are the right choice for your business, it may seem like a daunting task to actually get them up and running. By partnering with a brand like iQMetrix or using a free QR code generator, you can get your endless aisles operating quickly and not have to worry as much about the technology and logistics.

This post was originally written by Lauren Ufford and has been updated by Elise Dopson.

Keep selling even when you sell out

Only Shopify POS lets you sell products from your store even when you’re out of stock. See stock availability in your warehouse and store locations, complete transactions in-store, and ship orders from locations with stock on hand without any friction.

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