Is Brick and Mortar Retail Dying?


With all the store closings in the news lately (from JC Penney to Macy’s to Family Dollar) it’s easy to think brick-and-mortar retail is dying. In fact, many once venerable chains – like American Apparel and The Limited -- have filed for bankruptcy.  Why?  Because many of us have migrated some, or even much of our shopping to digital channels where procurement is faster, easier and oh-so-satisfyingly efficient. 

But the worst of times has brought out the best in some smart retailers who are improving their offline retail experiences for one very good reason – the margins are better.  They know that mom, whether she’s dragging around a trying toddler or a testy teen, will reward retailers who really do get it.

Back in the day there was a lot of buzz about experiential retail.  (Remember when Niketown was new and exciting?) Smart retailers are employing similar strategies today to lure customers into their shops where, again, sales and margins are higher. Now, it’s easy enough to create a one-off fantasy store, when you don’t have to execute across 150+ storefronts or beat last year’s same-store sales.  But some large + mainstream retailers are meeting the challenge:

  • Athleta has inspirational catalogs and makes online shopping easy.  But their stores are really enticing and the best way to shop the brand.  Sales associates are enthusiastic, knowledgeable and offer top-notch service from the moment you walk in all the way through to purchase.  The Fit Studio (fitting room) experience is set up to help you get just the right item for just the right performance at just the right fit.  Can’t get that online.
  • Disney will stop at nothing to enhance your consumer experience.  Did you know that, in October, Disney’s Magic Kingdom closes down FOR ONE HOUR and then opens up again with a complete evening-only Halloween theme including tons of signature merchandise + trick-or-treating? Their latest movie Beauty and the Beast was cross-promoted with The Bachelor complete with wine-and-yoga-pants parties; plus you can buy beautiful French-style merchandise at the Disney-Springs boutique or even Gap Kids!
  • Rebecca Minkoff is co-opting the digital experience to make a trend-forward immersive experience in their New York store.  You can browse physical products as per usual or swipe through the entire offering on the connected wall. Tap add to my room and the item shows up in your dressing room IRL.  You can even check out digitally on the dressing-room mirror.

We all know the many benefits to shopping online. But remember, there are some things you just can’t get from the digital world:

  • Yummy samples from Costco, Whole Foods and Trader Joes. Insta-snack for tantrumming toddler (or hangry mom).
  • Trying on before you buy.  Do you like endless returns because you ordered something online that doesn’t fit well?  No, we don’t either.
  • Expert advice.  Face it, that chatbot does not know how the item in question will feel in your very real hand. Why, just yesterday at Williams Sonoma the sales associate provided all sorts of surprising insider opinions on their mortar and pestle sets and which she’d recommend.  And hey, while you’re there you can snarf a sample of baked on-premise banana bread…
  • Inspiration.  The power housewares and furniture brands (i.e. Restoration Hardware, IKEA, Pottery Barn) provide loads of inspiration, ideas, solutions and style guidance for how your home could look.  All are destination retail. And where do you think all those Pinterest images come from, anyways?
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