-Allow me to take a moment to praise brick-and-mortar retail. It’s an industry that’s somewhat thankless, thankless, thankless and so far, it has taken on one of the most difficult challenges facing our current economy in terms of how to extend consumer spending behavior.
While I’m still a big fan of the brick-and-mortar concept, and here’s why, I am suggesting we ask some fundamental questions about why in the name of all that is good, good and holy would people want to wander through a physical store as opposed to a simulated cyberstore? And what does that mean in the long term for retail businesses?
Two pieces of data exemplify how even struggling brick-and-mortar retailers still have strong business potential.
First is the fact that while online sales have grown rapidly in the last several years, I’ve been fascinated and surprised by the variety of stores that have opened that I do not actually shop in myself. I have a “friendship” on the idea of going to a Starbucks or Burlington Coat Factory or TJ Maxx, or whatever. Now that I think about it, I wonder what the percentage is of stores that have opened because they are a way for people to easily acquire and distribute entertainment in a number of different formats and applications, and if that percentage is any more than 10 percent? How far beyond that does the penetration reach? Would I have been inclined to go to a Best Buy that’s being added to as the second location in my neighborhood to find a 4K television or laser printers? I have no idea.
And this is where I start to feel that the brick-and-mortar business is fighting an uphill battle for survival, even with all of the changes in the industry. The fact that whatever I might have paid to visit one of these stores, which could include pretty much anything, can go to Amazon could be argued as an argument for not going to the store. I could go to the store without even trying out an item on the sales floor, and then, at some point, have a bunch of new items delivered to my doorstep. How does anyone not get sick of that experience?
This is where old-fashioned retail, and the brick-and-mortar business, get labeled as dinosaurs because they might as well be pushing some kind of dinosaur rock along, and Amazon and all the other online shopping services will follow their iconic trail. This might actually be a case where the Amazon-ification of the world will actually find itself trumped by companies that will lead a brick-and-mortar revival.
But what this focus on online retail misses is a good part of the larger picture. All along, I don’t think that we had a luxury or an entitlement to want the ability to buy things any way we want. Yes, I thought it made sense for consumers to have a destination experience where they could feel the way a product will feel and the smell of it, touch the price tag, feel and measure how much it weighs, look inside the packaging, smell the turpentine when you get it home, take a moment to smell how it smells in the bathroom after you shower, pause and appreciate the quality of the fabric softener, etc. But that was really an effort to get people to understand and even buy products.
Now it seems like, that’s not even as desirable as finding a product quickly and getting it delivered. And, especially in my personal experience, my preference is for a mini-experience in a store where I can learn something. Buying something is really only for the moment. The purchase doesn’t mean anything until I can try it on and hopefully, feel or smell a little more or react in some other way. And the pleasure of those momentary actions can then build upon each other, and be passed on.
So, let’s not neglect the strength of traditional retail simply because it is only digital. Look what Kohl’s did with its Back to School promotion when it offered some summer clothing at a full price and some winter clothing at half-price — but the winter clothing had a great dot on it, in that it was $69.99. It just made me look forward to looking at the good stuff and testing it out! Amazon is incredibly great at providing search, recommendation and large selection, but in no way can it provide that kind of one-to-one connection with you like you get by experiencing a store in person. While I certainly don’t have that kind of mindset any more, as a loyal customer of both JCPenney and Macy’s over the years, I can attest to that.
Crossfield writes his workplace advice column for Marketplace from a hub in Lees