Sign of the times; Geoffrey the Giraffe, the Toys R Us mascot, leaving the last Toys R Us Store!
As many of us are (retail is a $5 Trillion industry) I’m researching, observing and discussing (obsessing) a lot about what’s really happening in physical retail, e-Commerce and the convergence of the two – omni-channel. And I realize some folks don’t love that term ‘omni-channel’, but actually it’s the best one I’ve found, and I’m sticking with it.
Anyway, back to my question – what makes some kinds of stores irreplaceable? Which kinds of stores? Why?
We just witnessed the disappearance of Toys R Us; see the poignant image above of Geoffrey the Giraffe, the Toys R Us mascot, with his luggage, on his way out of the store for the last time. Apparently toys are a category that was well-suited to move online. Or another way of putting it could be, the way Toys R Us sold toys, couldn’t compete with the online experience of buying toys (and there were other reasons for Toys R Us closing such as their ownership and debt structure). Which is not to say other ways of selling toys in stores can’t work. As we know, it’s not really about the product, its about the experience. More on this below.
3 Reasons Stores Aren’t Going Away
1/ Sound and Vision
Folks want to see and touch the things they buy (read more research on this here; how consumers are shopping). Even if they end up buying online. This is especially true the more expensive, personal and long-lasting the product. This can take the form of shoppers visiting stores to evaluate products in person, and then buying them online. Or researching products online first and then further evaluating them in a store, in person. And perhaps purchasing in the store, too. Touch, see, hear – sound and vision.
2/ Cabin Fever
Folks just want to have fun. Get out of their walk-up apartment or suburb. And interact with things in stores.
Shopping as discovery. In fact, it turns out that we are actually biologically programmed, hard-wired, to seek out new and surprising experiences. Shameless plug – I explain this more in my book, ‘The Future of Omni-Channel Retail: Predictions in the Age of Amazon’.
As humans we want to learn, and be surprised. Online retail isn’t the best at providing full immersion discovery and surprise for learning about new things, in a rich way.
3/ The Power of Now
Once you know what you want you really don’t want to wait for a UPS truck. So the fundamental, age-old purpose of shops as local ‘store-houses’ – repositories of a meaningful selection of commonly used things, suitable to the local market, still holds. And if consumers want 2 hour delivery of said things, then that’s a mutually reinforcing reason to keep inventory locally in stores, as close to the consumer as possible. Regional warehouses (Amazon) can only be so close to consumers. So retailers with brick and mortar stores already in place near consumers have a big advantage to online-only retailers – to facilitate local delivery.
Ok so those are 3 reasons stores will be around for a VERY LONG TIME.
2 Key Reasons Online Shopping Makes Sense
When there is enough trust the item will be what a shopper wants, online retail has an irreplaceable advantage. A good example of this is if a shopper has bought the item before, like a favorite brand of socks. Or a truly low-impact purchase, like paper towels. Or for a new item, if the shopper trusts the online reviews posted by others, or if its been recommended by someone they know. In other words, when there’s a high trust factor that the shopper will get what they want – that there won’t be a surprise – online shopping is the best way to save time and bother.
And in that case, the savings of time and energy in NOT having to schlep to the store is well worth waiting a couple of days for the item. This is most applicable to what I call, in my book, ‘mundane’ products (no insult).
2/ The Long Tail
This is a fundamental, irreplaceable benefit of the discovery and distribution power of the internet – the long tail (see wikipedia for a technical explanation of the long tail). But for shopping, it means the vast, but low-demand range of relatively obscure and unique products that could never be stocked in your local store. Products like unique used books, records, vintage sneakers, hand-crafted jewelry, unique furniture etc. That you can get on eBay, Etsy, or other platforms, And that you’d be hard-pressed to track down any other way. The truly unique and collectible. This is where the internet really delivers (pun intended).
I believe we’re at a time now, in the development of the internet and it’s increasing integration into, basically, everything, where we can trace out and predict how shopping (and possibly other areas of our culture as well) are likely to develop in tandem with legacy forms of commerce. We can see with increasing clarity what the future holds. Which can allow us, as participants in the retail, and related industries, to position ourselves advantageously within a variety of probable futures.