This was going to be one of those ‘insightful’, goose-bump-inducing, pieces until I realized how gob-smackingly obvious it is, but still worth saying. So at the risk of sounding like hotel.com’s dorky avatar, Captain Obvious, here goes.
What we still like about physical retail
Covid showed us, funnily enough, what we like about physical retail. We could order online and have delivered, virtually anything. You could say it was the fulfillment of Amazon and Doordash/Uber Eats/Grubhub’s wildest dreams.
So, why all the fuss about our restricted life-styles? We can have anything delivered to us, but so what? It’s kind of boring and not that great, at least not all the time or for every occasion.
We still like physical stores, and experiences of discovery. We like surprise, being spontaneous, being social. So, no matter how ‘convenient’ home delivery is; it only satisfies us in certain ways, and for certain types of purchase occasions. Covid has made this clear.
Oh, and delivery providers don’t like it much, either
And adding to the consumer perspective described above, delivery companies don’t appear to like the business much either. Matt Maloney, founder of Grubhub famously said ‘Food delivery is a crummy business’.
Delivery has always been around. Historically, merchants have delivered; fresh produce, meats, dairy. Anything from the local department store. Growing up in the UK, our friendly milkman dropped off pints of milk and other items to our doorstep every morning. I remember how birds would sometimes peck through the foil bottle tops to get a taste of the cream.
That model worked because there were established delivery routes, and enough households that wanted regular delivery of staples, to make it profitable. Also, England, like other countries in Europe, is a much more compact nation than the U.S. making the economics of delivery viable for retailers.
In the current era, the subsidization of money-losing delivery businesses by investors, with the hope of dominating delivery niches, has expanded the ubiquity and low consumer cost of delivery models. But many analysts doubt their potential to be sustainably profitable.
Summing up (to read more about this whole topic of omnichannel retail, check out my book) – yes, for more mundane purchases, where we have a high degree of confidence that what arrives on our doorstep is what we expected it to be, and we don’t want to be surprised, we are delighted to have Amazon or Doordash save us schlepping to, say, Target or Chipotle. The instant gratification of crossing dog food off your to-do list is well worth it.
But that type of instantaneity, wonderful when we need it, doesn’t begin to outweigh the pleasure of discovering what to buy, or learning about a product, or just an excuse to go out. We want, even crave, surprise; its why we like movies with twists and turns. At it’s best, the world of objects, both natural and human-created, thoughtfully presented in stores, malls and markets, satisfies that need for rich experience and discovery.
Covid has shown us both what we like, and don’t like, about an e-commerce world. Which tells us a lot about the future of retail, urban development, shopping malls, hospitality…how our consumer culture will develop. In a word; omnichannel – the fusion and interplay of online and offline modes.
Thanks, Captain Obvious.