Bye Bye Brick and Mortar?
It’s a question retail analysts have been speculating over for years: is the brick and mortar store dead?
The answer for now, is “no.” One thing is clear, though: if conventional brick and mortar stores are to survive, they will have to shift how they offer services and products, change the way they deal with customers, and visually re-invent their space.
As much as we hear about the transition from offline to online and store to site, the numbers show that e-commerce still does not yet carry the clout of a brick and mortar store. A recent study conducted by the Census Bureau of the Department of Commerce in the United States shows that while e-commerce is certainly a growing industry, it cannot compare to in-person retail sales. So while the trend is definitely on the rise, online stores still have a long way to go.
So while nothing can compare to the convenience of ordering clothing online while sitting in your pajamas, or calling a delivery service to bring your next meal, brick and mortar shops can still offer an experience that online cannot. It’s just a matter of tapping into those opportunities.
Here are a few trends and best practices that all physical retailers should consider if they want to survive the next several years.
Customers Prefer Personalization
There are more places than ever available for customers to find the product they need. For brick and mortar locations to compete, they are going to have to personalize their experience and their product to a customer’s needs and desires. Customers want a store to provide targeted and personalized offers. Whether it’s location-based advertising or tailored offers stemming off of past purchases, customers will be more loyal if a business has taken the time to care about their specific needs and invest in customer research and relationship management.
Personalization is a field where brick and mortar shops can find common ground and utilize online retail data. Whether it’s determining what products are popular with consumers, or following fashion blogs and social media to see the latest trends, physical storefronts can make smarter business decisions based on the gains and mistakes of online retailers.
One of the most successful examples of an online shop that has leveraged its digital following to create a successful, highly personalized physical shopping experience is Bonobos. The U.S. based company creates custom-fitting menswear for dapper customers. While products can be purchased online, the brick and mortar retail store in New York offers an intimate seating area, free beer for shoppers, and an attentive level of customer service.
A Human Connection
No matter how visually stunning a website is, an interface cannot compare with a positive customer service experience. We’ve all had them — the helpful sales clerk who puts together perfect outfits in a flash or the waiter who can rhyme off the menu items that may appeal to you. Brick and mortar stores will need to emphasize and improve their customer service offerings if they want to continue drawing in customers.
A positive customer service experience in a brick and mortar store is more important than ever before, since — ironically enough given the topic — customers can and do take to online review sites and social media to criticize or compliment an in-person interaction.
And while interactions between customer and retailer are important, so too are the connections prospective buyers can make with products themselves. A 2D online image of a cashmere coat cannot replicate the feeling of being in a store and feeling the piece of clothing for yourself. A survey done by the International Council of Shopping Centers found that almost three quarters of customers want to have a “multi-sensory consumer experience” where they can touch, smell, and hold a product for themselves before making the decision to buy.
The Pop-Up Phenomena
Retailers that started as online-only are also seeing the value in a physical shopfront, even if it’s only for a temporary time period. These temporary physical locations often manifest in the form of a “pop-up” shop – retail stores created for a set period of time (often seasonal sales) to sell a set slate of goods. Most notably, Amazon, the king of online retail, has opened pop-up brick and mortar locations in San Francisco and New York. In November 2015 it also opened its first-ever Amazon book store — thus reviving one of the brick and mortar establishments that has fallen the hardest as a result of online sales.
This trend is particularly important for small business owners who start by selling their items online.
Shopify, a worldwide leader in helping small business owners create online storefronts and point-of-sale systems, has also embraced these one-off face-to-face sales opportunities. The Canadian company has hosted a number of pop-up shops and advocates for why small businesses must bridge the gap between online sales and offline interaction. They argue that pop-up brick and mortar shops can be a great way to reach customers who may not have found them online – and a way to recruit those in-person customers to then keep up with the business over the web.
Another online small business platform, Etsy, runs a series of “Etsy Made Local” pop-up markets across North America. The e-commerce platform specifically allows small artisans to sell handmade or vintage goods online. CEO Chad Dickerson said that while the e-platform is an opportunity for people to sell their crafts, in the end, “all commerce is about human interaction.”
Both these case studies are proof that even leading e-commerce businesses see the value in connecting retailers with buyers — building satisfying customer relations, product and brand loyalty, and a sense of physical community.
So while e-commerce may be growing five times faster than brick and mortar store locations, the latter isn’t going away — for now. But their form and function must change. With demand from consumers not going away, the ability for brick and mortar locations to adapt will make all the difference in their survival.
What do you think is the future of brick and mortar retail? How will technology change the face of brick and mortar?