The holiday season, which is by far the most important time of year for retailers, highlights the increasingly intense battle between physical stores and online websites. Given the large number of casualties this year — witness the bankruptcy filings of such venerable institutions as Toys ‘R Us, The Limited, H.H. Gregg, Gander Mountain, Payless Shoes, and RadioShack, to name but a few — retailers must finally wake up to the core terrain over which they’re fighting: customers’ time.
Online retailers offer consumers time well saved. People can find what they want, when they want it, with incredible ease and convenience, and with the physical good shipped directly to their homes in a matter of days (and increasingly, in large cities, hours). As often as not, they don’t even have to pay shipping costs, and returns are a relative breeze. While the U.S. Census Bureau puts e-commerce’s share of the U.S. retail market at less than 10% as of the first quarter of 2017, online sales are growing at almost 10% per year. Should that trend continue — and it appears to be accelerating slightly — online retailing will account for nearly 20% of the total in 2025, over 30% in 2030, and about 50% in 2035.
To address this threat, one path physical retailers can take, of course, is to compete by going online themselves and even using their physical stores as a pickup spot — a strategy that many bricks-and-mortar retailers have taken. (One retailer I know saw a 35% bump in sales when it gave customers the option of picking up merchandise in its stores that they had bought online.)
But that alone will not save many retailers’ physical stores. They have to provide a compelling reason for consumers to visit them that online retailers can’t match. The best way is to compete on the basis of time well spent — to offer an experience so engaging that customers cannot help but spend time with you! And the more time they spend with you, the more money they will spend.
Consider what I think is the best new retail format in ages: Eataly. This Milan-based retailer (which so far has 13 stores in Italy, five in the United States, and five others in other countries) manages to combine all things Italian cooking into one amazingly engaging space: a café, one or more restaurants, a cooking school, and — especially — rows and rows of Italian groceries, kitchenware, and small appliances for sale. Consumers often spend hours there, and then memorialize their visit with photos posted to their Instagram feed or other social media outlets.
Many retailers (even banks) incorporate cafés to engage the senses and encourage consumers to linger, such as Restoration Hardware’s new 70,000-square-foot place in Chicago, which features a courtyard café, an espresso bar, and a wine room. Others, such as cosmetics retailers Lush and SABON, focus on getting consumers to experience their goods in the store, knowing that will increase the chances they will make a purchase.
Another approach is to focus on the story of each product, as happens in L’Occitane en Provence when customers encounter associates. Yet another way to offer time well spent is to stage special events, which even Walmart is doing this holiday season: It’s hosting 20,000 parties across its 4,700 stores, knowing that’s something Amazon cannot do. The Christmas season, of course, furnishes the perfect time-tested tactic that has worked for decades for department stores: Santa Villages and other Christmas extravaganzas for which people gladly pay to give their kids a festive experience.
Interestingly, many of the most engaging retail experiences have come from manufacturers. There’s American Girl Places, which immerses girls in its doll’s stories; Nespresso Boutiques, which lets people experience its espresso machines before they buy them; LEGO Stores, which feature play and building; and, of course, Apple Stores, where every product is live and workshops offer skills, “geniuses” offer support, and sessions offer inspiration. (Even Starbucks started out as a manufacturer before Howard Schultz turned it into an experience stager.) And recognizing the demand-generating power of physical engagement, numerous online retailers have opened up their own bricks-and-mortar stores; examples include Warby Parker stores, Bonobos Guideshops (bought by Walmart), and mass customizer Indochino Showrooms.
Those that are best at staging experiences have even figured out that when consumers truly value the time well spent they encounter in these places, the retailer can charge for that time via an admission or membership fee. Billed as the world’s most beautiful bookstore, Livraria Lello, in Porto Portugal, charges an admission fee of €3 just to enter the store — and then consumers get that money back if they make a purchase. Universal CityWalk in Hollywood charges from $5 to $50 (depending on location and time of day) per vehicle — not for parking per se but specifically to send the signal that it is a retail place worth experiencing.
Generally, though, retailers charge for particular experiences within their stores and do not charge for admission to their stores. American Girl charges for its café experience, a photo shoot and magazine cover, and even a doll hair salon experience (not to mention birthday parties that can run into the thousands of dollars). Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI) charges customers $20 to $40 to tackle the 60-foot climbing walls and structures it has in its flagship stores, offering instruction and also essentially getting customers to pay to try out its mountain-climbing equipment. And the Mall of America charges for the various rides in its Nickelodeon Universe theme park in the middle of the mall.
Wingtip, a men’s store in San Francisco, doesn’t charge for the retail experience — as engaging as it is, with superb merchandising of clothing, including a bespoke experience, plus wine and spirits, cigars, and a barbershop fulfilling its theme of “Solutions for the Modern Gentleman”; instead it created the Wingtip Club in the top two stories of its building for which it charges membership fees. The club is a refuge from the bustle of the city, with a lounge, bar, game room, whiskey corner, and golf simulator; members spend hours at a time there. The price of a membership is a $3,000 initiation fee and then $200 per month for unlimited access. All members (men and women) receive a 10% discount on merchandise.
There will always be physical stores for pickup convenience and the commoditized or very inexpensive merchandise like Dollar Tree stores sell. But providing a compelling or memorable physical experience is a different strategy that can work. Physical retailers must choose between time-well-saved and time-well-spent strategies. Whatever they do, they should be careful not to choose a middle-of-the-road approach that fails to excel at either.