Bottom Line Inc

In Defense of Brick-and-Mortar Stores: 5 Simple Ideas for Retailer Success

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Attention retailers: Stop blaming Amazon because you can’t get it right.

It seems there is an announcement about store closures or disappointing sales each week from some retailer large or small. The usual excuse given by the retailer’s corporate leaders and industry experts—it’s Amazon and the growth of online shopping. But I will say to them the same thing that I said to our own employees 10 years ago when the economy stunk and so did our revenues: Those who do it right are still succeeding.

Ten years ago, Bottom Line couldn’t blame the economy for its poor sales, when right across the street from our offices, the lines were out the door at the Apple store…and tables were full at the high-end chain restaurant The Capital Grille.

More recently, consumer spending has been strong and getting stronger so it’s not that people aren’t buying things. People have money to spend when the product they want to buy is worth the money. They don’t spend money on things they don’t feel are worth it.

And, retailers, it’s not that Amazon is so great…it’s that you are not providing the products and services people want to buy.

I don’t want you to go. I love Amazon, but I don’t want it to become the only game in town (or wherever it may actually exist)…just as I love pizza, but I don’t want it for every eating occasion.

Please, retailers, consider this…

I want to touch and feel things. Recently, I was looking for ready-made curtains and towel bars. I liked what I saw online at Restoration Hardware, so I went in to the store so that I could touch and feel the product and, hopefully, purchase it. Instead I had a poorly trained woman tell me that the towel bars are not in stock but that she was happy to show me the options on her iPad.

As for the curtains, I could feel the fabrics, but every other question regarding length and style was again referred to the website. Oh, and by the way, the curtains were not in stock either. Poor training…samples not in stock…product not in stock. Three strikes, Restoration Hardware, you were out.

I want it now. The great thing about bricks-and-mortar retail is that you can walk out with your purchase now—not everyone or every occasion allows 48 hours of advance planning. Yesterday, when I needed an easy-pack dress for a trip I have to take this week, I went to a few stores and tried on a few dresses. Some looked good…some looked not so good. One looked perfect, and a half-hour later my problem was solved. If I tried doing that online, I would not have had the dress in time, and I would have had an armload of dresses that had to be shipped back. Zappo’s makes returns as easy as possible, but it’s still a pain…and then there’s the angst of tracking the return to be sure your account gets credited.

I want to get out of the house. Some of us may envision a day in which no one needs to go to retail stores because everything can be either direct-delivered or made at home on a 3-D printer…which has cartridges delivered by Amazon, of course.

But there are only so many hours that people can (or should!) sit at their computers. We need a change of scenery…fresh air…social interactions…and physical activity. There is a tremendous opportunity to make stores a place where people want to go, rather than simply a series of racks. Why is Starbucks so popular when people can easily brew their own, less expensive coffee at home? Because Starbucks creates an environment where people want to be.

Perhaps the clothes just aren’t that attractive. In recent years, I have read articles about clothing retailers that are suffering and blaming the economy. But perhaps rather than blaming the economy, retailers should consider what people are looking for and if their clothing styles are flattering. The peasant look, which was popular in the 1960s and 1970s, has been popular again in recent seasons. It didn’t look great then—and I can’t imagine why they think it looks great now. I haven’t updated my work clothes in years—not because I didn’t want to buy clothes but because I couldn’t find clothes I wanted to buy!

I need advice. Why is Apple so successful? Apple still has lines out the door, even though it is easy as pie to order its products online. So why are Apple stores so crowded? Because they offer a great experience and well-trained articulate salespeople who can answer my questions and help me make a decision.

Similarly, I used to buy clothes at a department store using a personal shopper. The prices were the same, but Kathy was able to find clothes that were right for my body, and she even could find things that looked great on me that I never would have found on my own. She gave me guidance when I needed it and eased my sense of being overwhelmed. Why aren’t I using Kathy anymore? The store closed, and she left the area for another job. And so I haven’t updated my wardrobe since.

C’mon, retailers. Like the publishing industry, you have to figure out your success formula when the environment has changed. There are significant benefits that retailers can provide that online simply can’t. Humans are social creatures. We like things tactile and interactive. You are the ultimate interactive environment, if you can see it that way, rather than simply focusing on cost-cutting and transaction-processing.

On a hopeful note…as profit pressures mount for national retailers and as consumers show continued interest in “buying local,” there seems to be a rebirth in local retailers. The mom-and-pops are back. You can find them at the seemingly ubiquitous farmer’s markets, where they can have inexpensive access to customers instead of skyrocketing retail rents. Just as new life sprung out of the devastating fires in Yellowstone National Park in 1988, perhaps the demise of giant retailers will be a good thing for the local landscape. It may give local retailers the chance to return with unique products and that oh-so-important trait—service. Let’s hope so.

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