Throwing bricks on the mortar

I was recently discussing with some friends the impact of online shopping on brick and mortar retailers. It was in fact a week before it became apparent that it could be game over for GAME, the brick and mortar game retailer. I contended that after CDs / DVDs and books, it ought to be electronics. I didn’t put games in the same category as DVDs but clearly I overlooked. A customer was telling me just yesterday about how his daughter frequently dipped into Wikipedia for her homework while in his days he probably went looking for the Encyclopedia. Eerie, but news just broke out today that the print edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica has been discontinued.

To add to these woes for retailers, “showrooming” (i.e. check out product in store and buy online) is equally eroding their businesses. In just the past few weeks, I have showroomed at least twice where the beneficiary has invariably been Amazon. The latest incident however brought up another aspect that I hadn’t quite considered earlier. It’s not just price that drives people online. I was trying to buy a toy and found something that looked interesting. Now, how do I know this is indeed a good toy for a 4 year old when it’s been nearly 32 years since I could think like one? How do I know there aren’t serious problems with this toy and the store wasn’t carrying the last few lemons? That drove me online – again to Amazon where I was reassured by the high ratings and positive reviews that this was indeed a hit toy among that age group. Incidentally, it was also £10 cheaper on Amazon, so that’s where my custom went!

Brick and mortar companies have been scratching their heads about competing against the online attack. Some have opened their own online storefronts – a good first step, albeit terribly late for some retailers like Walmart. Others like Target are trying to coerce their suppliers to come up with exclusive products that can only be availed at their stores. I can quite see that working in some departments like clothing. What I don’t see retailers doing is to try make the store experience an enjoyable one. Walk into Waterstones with a clear idea of the book you want to buy and it is still frustrating when it takes quite an effort to find the which part of store will carry the book (if at all) you are after. That is before I have to crane my neck to read book titles that are stacked vertically! On a recent visit to one of their stores, I found a PC terminal that supposedly helps you locate the book but the application was so broken that I was better off with my manual search. If this is the store experience, why bother?

Thinking about improving the store experience, here are a few ideas. What if retailers helped you navigate the store? Tesco is leading on this one with some simple (download their app, create shopping list, find nearest store and get an optimised picking order generated for you) as well as whacky (enter store, create shopping list on trolley, get a GPS-like map navigating you step by step through the store, all enabled by expensive in-store GPS equipment) ideas.

What if stores let you pick an item and have it delivered to your home directly. This is the opposite of click and mortar where you buy online to pick up at a store. Some retailers probably do this already (although I haven’t come across one yet), but I would quite like to see a product for real in a store buy not worry about lugging it home.

Someone recently was talking about a shopping centre that just opened in his neighbourhood that has no stores but just cinemas and restaurants! This can quite likely be a lasting trend when most of us buy online (routine items or otherwise) and go to our nearby high street for any urgent or niche items. While high streets are being written off, I actually think they may very well survive and its the big retailers that are in danger of extinction.

Here’s hoping retailers get creative in their effort to lure people back to stores.


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