A few years ago, as a young first time mother, I found myself in a predicament. I didn’t fit into any of my old clothes, yet I was too shy to go shopping and replace them. So, as many do, I went online to buy a new wardrobe. I was excited as I waited for my clothes to arrive. But my elation evaporated as I opened my first package.
My new jeans were too small.
You can imagine my frustration, but I duly returned them and re-ordered what I hoped was the right size. After another few days I finally received my new jeans for the second time.
To my relief they fit! But they didn’t come from the same manufacturer that my first pair had. These ones were made out of a flimsy material that only lasted a month or two. In the end, they weren’t worth the time or money I had spent on them.
These kinds of ecommerce issues happen all the time. Purchasing products that can’t be touched, from e-retailers that can’t be visited in person, necessitates a lot of uncertainty in the buying process. Mis-sized clothing or shoddily made products are just some of the risks shoppers take for the seeming convenience, and bigger selections, of online retailers and marketplaces.
Online shopping might seem quick, easy, and convenient, but it is not always so. Instead, it’s the purchasing that’s quick. The process of actually getting the right product can often take much longer, however, and involve a lot more hassle, than traditional shopping.
All in all, the physicality of brick and mortar stores gives them certain advantages over ecommerce. Here are four of the most important:
- Physical Connection: Customers can establish a physical connection with products at brick and mortar stores.
- Convenience: Customers can buy items at physical stores and bring them home immediately.
- Expertise: Store employees can provide personal expertise and guidance to customers mulling a purchase.
- Experiences: Physical stores can create enjoyable experiences for customers such as taste testings, cafes, and live music.
Let’s take a look at each in turn.
One of the biggest advantages brick and mortar retailers have is the ability to touch, feel, and test their products. Not only does this allow customers to establish a physical connection with items that often leads to purchases, it also lowers the number of returns that retailers have to deal with compared with online stores.
Retailers therefore need to give customers abundant opportunities to touch their products. That means, first and foremost, having as many items in stock as possible. It also means making products easy to find so that customers can quickly experience the items they are looking for. Finally, offering opportunities to try out products through tastings or instore boutiques/showrooms allows customers to test items they might not have considered before.
Despite popular narratives to the contrary, brick and mortar retail is often much more convenient than online shopping. Instead of waiting 1-3 days to receive ecommerce products, customers can jump in their car and have the items immediately. The ability to physically touch, try on, and experiment with store items also reduces their risk of having to return purchases later. Additionally, customers can get immediate guidance from store employees about items they’re thinking about purchasing (more about that in the next section). Finally, the inherently curated nature of physical stores reduces the sea of options that a customer would have to wade through online.
The conveniences of brick and mortar shopping require fully stocked shelves and enough supply chain inventory visibility to provide alternatives when an item is out of stock. Items also need to be easy to find, lines need to be short, and enough employees need to be available for customers to easily consult. The more difficult, time consuming, confusing, and frustrating brick and mortar stores make shopping in person, the more likely consumers will look online for what they want.
Many customers come to brick and mortar stores specifically for the expertise of their employees. In-store advice is generally much more personal, immediate, and informed than what can be found in online reviews. Lots of retailers recognize this. Over the 2018 holiday season, for example, Barnes and Nobles ran a series of ads highlighting the fact that their booksellers are great sources of advice and entertainment for customers.
Of course, in order for employees to provide expert guidance they need to actually be present on store floors. Retailers need to make sure that (a) there are enough employees to serve customers that need help, (b) non-customer facing tasks such as back room restocking are performed strategically, (c) employees are knowledgeable about store products, and (d) there is a customer service culture in place that makes customer guidance a priority over other job functions.
Shopping isn’t just about purchasing an item. Consumers also go to brick and mortar stores to get out of the house, socialize, window shop, look at new gadgets, explore new styles, etc. In other words, physical shopping is often more of a fun experience than a mere mundane activity. By comparison, online shopping is a task to be performed as quickly as possible.
This provides ample opportunity for brick and mortar stores to offer experiences that encourage customers to return again. Places like Sam’s Club and Costco give out free samples, Nordstrom boasts coffee shops and restaurants, and IKEA offers swedish food and childcare. In addition to creating these types of experiential opportunities, retailers also need to fix any issues that might lead to bad shopping experiences such as long lines, bad lighting, messy shelves, old store designs, not enough employees to help, lack of places to sit and rest, confusing layouts and signage, etc.
When brick and mortar stores harness the above advantages they do well even in the current difficult retail climate. That’s why companies like Best Buy, Walmart, and Target have been able to not just hold their own but thrive in spite of ecommerce eating up more of the retail landscape. Such stores provide a slew of conveniences and advantages that ecommerce can only dream of.
But what’s really interesting is that none of these advantages necessarily involve high tech gadgets, machine learning algorithms, or deep data insights. Instead, they’re all about the age old adages of retail: great products and great customer service. If physical stores get back to these basics they’d see a lot more customers and we’d see a lot fewer pictures like this: