A retail survival guide for the age of online shopping
By Ashish Gambhir, co-founder and president, Momentsnap
The brick-and-mortar retail model is not yet in its death throes, but it is far from flourishing. Serious evolution and innovation are necessary if storefronts hope to beat back the tide of digital behemoths like Amazon and Walmart.
The first step for brick-and-mortar retail chains is accepting the reality of online shopping — and using its weaknesses to their advantage. In-store shopping is rarely a necessity anymore; it is instead a choice. Retail leaders must recognize their agency in determining the outcome of that choice, which means developing survival mechanisms to compete with the web.
That means seeking to operate in tandem with online shopping, not opposed to it. The internet isn't going anywhere, and the movement of commerce to the digital sphere only better defines the role of brick-and-mortar stores. Retail stores should appreciate the exceptionalism of occupying physical space in an era of widespread drift toward the virtual, and optimize all three dimensions of that space to offer what online shopping cannot: an experience — tactile, social, auditory — that magnetizes customers.
The conditions for the perfect brick-and-mortar store experience are as delicate as those of a natural ecosystem, but three essentials can serve as a guide: atmosphere, data-driven individualization, and employee engagement.
The youngest generation is not as wedded to internet as the headlines would lead you to believe: 58 percent of Generation Z shoppers prefer brick-and-mortar stores to online shopping. According to a Mood Media survey, this preference is driven by the "atmosphere and experience" of brick-and-mortar stores, which offer more to customers than the glow of a computer screen.
Notably, music plays an outsized role in a store's ambiance, with 81 percent of consumers agreeing that a soundscape makes the shopping experience more enjoyable. Focus on atmosphere has a monetary payoff: 37 percent of customers reported that being in the right mood compels them to make impulse purchases.
Tunes are only the beginning. Stores can offer drinks and snacks to convey that the customer is a welcome guest in a hospitable space; host local artists for Q&As or open mics; or partner with other brands to put on special events. Employee training should emphasize the importance of a positive bearing and creating relationships with regular customers.
For a successful case study, look no further than Apple stores, which benefit from slick layout, positive culture and ample event offerings.
The same technological advancement that has threatened in-store retail can be leveraged to improve it. Retail leaders now have access to more information about their customers — who they are, where they shop, what they buy — than ever before. They can use this information to cater individual locations to the tastes of target demographics most likely to shop there. Brick-and-mortar stores can use data like Spotify's Musical Map to create a playlist tailored to the demographic they want to attract. To make the in-store experience more unique, they can determine a collection of highly desirable products for a location, and then offer that collection exclusively in-store. Brick-and-mortar stores can also use social media listening tools to assess their customer's experience and reshape themselves accordingly.
3. Employee engagement
Retail's secret weapon: it's employees. For all the convenience of online shopping, there's no disputing its impersonality. Tremendous potential is embedded in front-line staff — provided they are engaged.
Employee engagement is the elusive but crucial metric that gauges the satisfaction employees derive from their work, and the effort they put in proportionally. There is no universal recipe for engagement, but emphasizing a few general principles is a great place to start: transparency, communication, and recognition are the cornerstones of any successful engagement effort.
For employees to know how to improve, they must have a clear picture of their current performance. Store leaders should consistently collect and exhibit performance data (sales, guest satisfaction, etc), so that employees can orient themselves and know where to direct their efforts. Further, store leaders must recognize good work to encourage it in the future.
Stores might also turn the capabilities of digital technology inward and use employee engagement platforms to achieve these goals. Platforms that allow employees to align their values with those of their brand, view their performance data, and receive recognition elevate brick-and-mortar stores to a new level of engagement.
Remember: online shopping is not your enemy. Online and in-store shopping can work in tandem: more than half of shoppers — 60 percent of respondents — start their hunt in the digital channel but prefer shopping in physical locations. Customers go online to evaluate the inventories and prices of different stores, but they are still willing to expend the effort of going to a brick-and-mortar store. Brick-and-mortar stores are peddlers of experience: sites where a well-tuned atmosphere and human connection converge to produce a sense of fulfillment that envelopes the purchase.
Technological advancement brings with it a nostalgia for the rudiments — the bricks and mortars—of human experience, like face-to-face interaction in the marketplace. Above all, let's remember that brick-and-mortar stores consider the customer holistically — as a social animal with five senses — in ways that online shopping cannot. As long as they remember and continuously capitalize upon this fundamental reality, brick-and-mortar stores are here to stay.