Chun-wei Chang, Jonathan Z. Zhang, Scott Neslin
Recent trends suggest retailers are ambivalent regarding the contribution of the physical retail store. Ironically, several traditionally offline retailers are closing stores, while some traditionally online retailers are opening them. This raises the question, what is the role of the physical retail store in today’s multichannel environment? We posit that the type of product purchased, “fit” or “non-fit”, impacts subsequent customer value, and that purchasing fit products offline is especially effective at creating high value customers. We formulate a multivariate hidden Markov model (HMM) to investigate how customers make product and channel decisions. The HMM identifies two dynamic states – low-value and high-value. We hypothesize and find that fit-product purchases accelerate customer migration to the high-value state, especially if those purchases are made in the physical store. We theorize this occurs because buying fit products requires customer engagement, the physical store excels at providing this engagement, and engagement leads to higher customer satisfaction and hence value. In addition, we find that offline marketing communication, specifically direct mail, enhances the likelihood the customer buys fit products offline and hence migrates customers to the high-value state, or keeps them at high value if they are already there. Our findings identify a strategic role that fit products and retail stores play in customer development, and show that marketing can help implement this strategy.