The first e-commerce transaction—a music CD, pizza, or weed, depending on who you ask—took place around thirty years ago. That means that first truly native ecommerce generation is now in charge of their own foot traffic and armed with at least one device that spares them the trouble of leaving the house. This, paired with the broader shift in consumer behavior across all generations, means brick and mortars need to find new ways to compete with digital to inspire visits and sales. Stores are evolving and, along the way, challenging the very notion of what a store is for.
Up against digital
A big part of brick and mortar’s evolution is digital integration. Today, retailers are working to enhance and personalize customer experience by connecting to consumers in-store through their mobile devices—building apps, targeting ads, and using beacons. You can find many examples of digital integration today, though online retailer Rebecca Minkoff’s flagship store in New York offers one of the more comprehensive ones; its interactive wall and dressing rooms have been credited with tripling expected clothing sales. Timberland also just launched its first connected store while Nordstrom’s commitment to digital integration has been credited with 50% growth in revenue over 5 years. (They just hired a former Amazon exec to serve as CTO.) Target, too, is getting into the mix, launching an LA25 initiative where it’s testing 50 of its top enhancements in 25 Los Angeles stores.
The IRL advantage
But digital integration is not the only strategy; retailers can also draw on the in-real-life [IRL] advantages of the physical space. Immediacy comes in here, with more retailers enabling online ordering and pick up in store or curbside. It’s competitive because fewer exclusively online retailers can offer this instant gratification, but is not necessarily a long-term strategy given that online fulfillment will continue to evolve and speed up.
More effective is the opportunity to build community. Oftentimes, this comes in the form of caffeine; Barnes and Noble was an early innovator here, adding a Starbucks to a New Jersey store back in 1993. Since then, many retailers have adopted or tested in-store cafes, including Urban Outfitters, Target, Restoration Hardware, and Kohl’s. Along the same lines, Target, Whole Foods, and Nordstrom, among others, are offering cocktails in some stores. When trying to attract customers and increase dwell time, there’s an advantage in offering something that can’t be instantly downloaded, like coffee, booze, and yes, maybe even tattoos. (See Whole Foods.)
Meanwhile, another concept that keeps popping up is—ahem—the pop up shop. The pop up shop’s currency is urgency; if customers don’t come now they risk missing out forever. Bloomingdales is hosting a pop up inspired by the musical Hamilton while Macy’s is bringing in pop ups as part of the reinvention of its Brooklyn store. The pop up also presents a low-risk testing ground for online retailers, one compelling example being Warby Parker’s touring store that was housed in a school bus.
But…is it a store?
As brick and mortar adapts, becoming deeper integrated with digital, acting a fulfillment center and expanding to offer drinks and other services, the classic definition of “store” begins to fragment. Already, the “store” has lost its longstanding position as the finale of the customer purchase funnel; in no small part because that purchase funnel itself is an antiquated concept. Savvy retailers and brands in general now think of the consumer experience as an ongoing loop, with consumers moving from digital to physical and back until, eventually, there may be no clear delineation between the two. This emphasis on the overall experience changes the expectations of stores. It also opens opportunities for more types of brands to invest in physical locations.
For example, last year, there was an more than an hour wait at the Museum of Feelings in downtown New York City. The museum invited visitors to walk through a sensory presentation of each feeling: Optimism, Joy, Invigorated, Exhilarated and Calm, while its exterior changed color to reflect the social mood of New York. You might argue that this wasn’t actually a store, but then it wasn’t actually a museum either; The Museum of Feelings was a branded retail experience for Glade, generating buzz for an otherwise not-so-buzzed-about brand.
More recently, Samsung launched Samsung 837, a “first-its-kind cultural destination, digital playground and marketing center of excellence.” Samsung 837 serves as a showcase for innovation, offering what may be the first virtual reality experience for many visitors and providing Instagram-friendly experiences like the walk-through Social Media Gallery. But what’s unique about Samsung’s space is that there is nothing sold there. It’s an experience—an opportunity for Samsung to tell its story and give visitors a way to get excited about the brand they’ll buy in the future.
In cases like these, brick and mortars serve as a marketing vehicle—an opportunity for brands to curate their own presence for customers, just as social provided the format to operate as a media company. It’s a trend that makes Amazon’s decision to open its own brick and mortars seem strategic. But is the return there?
It always comes back to data
The ability to more accurately track consumer activity gives brick and mortars a host of insights. Not only can the more connected store know what was purchased, they can also see what products compelled the most research, price comparisons, or inspired trips to the fitting room. They can engage with in-store customers via social media as well as encourage and measure posts from their store and, increasingly, tap into emotional analytics. Further, more sophisticated attribution measurement is making it possible to determine what investments drove traffic to the store, even without purchase.
Though it would be inaccurate to suggest that traffic and sales aren’t still the key performance indicators for most stores, this broader set of data, if put to use, can help a retailer optimize beyond the limits of its four walls—especially critical at a time when stores are closing so rapidly that CNN wrote “Store Closings are the Hottest Trend in Retail.”
Where to go from here
Digital has an odd way of creating challenges and then presenting solutions for those challenges it creates. It offers a range of ways of to add genuine value, from brand awareness to interaction, coupled with pop-up flexibility. If retailers are savvier about embracing this value, they’ll stand a better chance of attracting customers. If not, they’re not only missing out on opportunities in the near term, they’re limiting their future prospects for growth—after all, isn’t it a waste to see a store as a fulfilment outlet?