Online Retailers Invade the Storefront

Will brick-and-mortar retailers surrender the sales floor to pure-play online sellers? Not if they exploit their experiential advantages in the physical space—and step up their game on the technology front.

Warby Parker fills eyeglass prescriptions in a converted bus in Austin. Amazon opens a bookstore for readers in Seattle. Rent the Runway opens by-appointment styling studios across the country.

After years of brick-and-mortar merchants extending their reach to the Web and mobile, pure-play retailers are returning the favor—and further blurring their differences. Implicitly, both sides are endorsing the worth of omni-channel commerce, which enables customers to shop, order, pick up, and exchange in whatever channel is most convenient. Everyone agrees: An integrated customer experience leads to sustained loyalty and sales.

What’s more, shoppers increasingly expect their ever-present mobile technology to help research items, check promotions, snap photos, and share finds with friends and family on social media.

While the top pure-plays are obviously skilled in coding, image manipulation, shipping, and data analysis, they arrive with limited familiarity with the complexity of the in-store customer experience. How should shelf merchandise be organized, lighted, and tagged? Where should checkouts be located? What makes for a successful sales associate? What’s involved in loss control and other security issues?

Some companies—Apple is the prime example—will reimagine the retail experience, but most will hire experienced merchandisers, architects, and recruiters to level the playing field and speed their rollouts.

But as “techies,” they naturally assume they can and should handle infrastructure-design decisions themselves.

Ironically, this offers an advantage to traditional retailers, who understand that the technology to support the new buyer is complex, evolving, and productive only if it actually enhances the shopping process.

They know they need technology deployment experts—not generic cable-pullers and installers—who join in the design process, transparently manage every step, and facilitate solutions:

  • What’s the optimal network configuration for flawless Wi-Fi coverage? How does it scale as in-store device usage proliferates? Will it accommodate changing displays, inventory materials, and peak holiday traffic?
  • How can Bluetooth beacons maximize their value to personalize the shopping experience?
  • How should digital signage and kiosks be utilized to enhance merchandising and messaging?
  • What’s the best way to pilot-test new technologies, roll out enhancements, and train salespeople?

In short, the pure-players’ technology lead is somewhat of an illusion. Brick-and-mortar retailers’ deeper understanding of how real shoppers behave on the sales floor, combined with knowledgeable and professional deployment, can enable competitive success.

Written By: Gina Daniel-Lee, Vice President of Strategic Alliances