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Does Brick-and-Mortar Have a Future

Published on 28 September 2020
the future of brick-and-mortar retail

Industry experts have been heralding the end of brick-and-mortar shopping for years.  It even has a name – the retail apocalypse.  Let’s face it, online shopping has grown up and matured; these days you can buy just about anything from the comfort of your favorite chair, even a car or a home! What was once predicted to be the slow decline of brick-and-mortar shopping has been drastically accelerated due to the pandemic and the resulting store closings across the globe.  But is the demise of the brick-and-mortar store a certainty? Are there things that retailers can do today to keep their customers coming back into their stores again and again?  Can brick-and-mortar and online shopping peacefully co-exist?  Despite all the doom and gloom for brick-and-mortar shopping, online retailing makes up only a small portion of overall retail sales.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, while online sales rose at a much higher rate from Q1 2020 to Q2 2020 than overall retail sales (+31.8% and -3.9% respectively), online sales still only represent 16.1%  of total retail sales.  So, what’s all the buzz about?

In a September 2019 article, Total Retail points to success for retailers through an omnichannel strategy“Brick-and-mortar isn’t dying, it’s evolving. Leading retailers are changing the in-store experience to increase brand affinity and conversions. A major challenge is removing friction from online and offline experiences in an omnichannel world.” — Jordan Ekers, Chief Customer Officer and Co-founder, Nudge Rewards

As someone with a life-long love for the thrill of finding that perfect item in a well merchandised store, I am saddened every time I learn of yet another retailer closing up shop.  Some are just closing their stores and shifting their focus to online sales.  Microsoft announced the closing of all physical stores while they pivot to 100% online selling.  Others are calling it quits completely, i.e., Century 21, Lord & Taylor, Stein Mart, and the list goes on and on. Others are finding a different way to sell their products.  While Papyrus, known for their mall-based greeting card and gift stores, announced the closing of all their locations and their website, their products will continue to be available at retailers such as Target and Amazon.  In another sign of the changing retail landscape, after filing bankruptcy and announcing their liquidation, Pier 1 has a new owner that will be shifting to an online only model.  So even though a retailer may be pronounced DOA, it’s not over until it’s totally over.
So clearly, the retail landscape is changing, driven by technology and shifting consumer preferences. After all, what’s so bad about shopping in your jammies? Or opening your front door to find a package just waiting to be opened.  For me, e-commerce has made shopping – and buying – much too accessible, but that’s a lesson for another time.

But it’s not all bad news for brick-and-mortar.  There are a growing number of retailers that started as online-only but are now opening storefronts.  Online brand Glossier started life as a beauty blog, built a cult-like following and decided to expand to physical stores where customers can enjoy a personalized beauty products experience.  Allbirds, maker of the world’s “most comfortable shoes” has ventured into the realm of the physical, offering customers the opportunity to play hamster in their shoes on the brand’s human-size hamster wheel or just “chillax” while waiting to step up to the “shoe bar”.  Warby Parker, the eyewear brand that started online and has expanded to stores, says that more than 50% of sales occur offline with 75% of in-store purchases starting on their website. The stores feature help desks similar to Apple’s Genius Bar and iPad-armed store associates.  To see more examples of this trend, check out Inside Trend’s list of 25 online retailers that are going offline. 

What do these formerly online-only brands have in common?  Their physical presence is all about the experience, or the opportunity to be entertained, whether it’s a human hamster wheel, the ability to “try before you buy”, or even an indoor lake, as in the case of Bass Pro Shops at the Pyramid in Memphis.  Retailers are recognizing that being “just another store” doesn’t cut it with today’s shoppers who have more choices than ever.  Retailers need to give shoppers a reason to leave home and venture into their stores; they need to create an environment of surprise and delight, something that the shopper will remember.  A recent Forbes article states that “retailers should focus on creating in-store experiences that inspire customers to keep coming back”.  A great example of a unique and memorable in-store experience is Casper.  The mattress retailer that helped prove you can buy anything online, is moving into the brick-and-mortar space in a big way.  For a fee, customers can take a nap on a mattress in the store, complete with fresh pajamas, a private sleep station and a post-nap coffee.
Of course, all this experiential shopping comes at a cost and retailers need to balance the wow factor against the bottom line. It does no good to create an amazing environment if it doesn’t drive enough incremental sales to justify the expense.  And it won’t be long before retailers will start trying to outdo each other with an experience that’s bigger and better in an effort to increase traffic – and sales.  Some may come to find that keeping up with the Joneses doesn’t translate to increased sales and may pull back their creativity to survive. 

So, with all these changes happening in retail today, what’s a die-hard shopper, like myself, to do?  Even though I have succumbed to the ease and convenience of shopping online, at-home, at any hour of the day or night, there is still nothing that quite compares to the sensory experience provided by brick-and-mortar retailers.  Am I a dying breed like many a pundit has said about brick-and-mortar shopping or will I be joined by throngs of other shoppers looking to be surprised and delighted when they walk into a store?  Only time will tell for sure, but this shopper is betting that brick-and-mortar is here to stay and can peacefully co-exist with e-commerce.

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