The internet has digitalized the way we buy, and the way we interact with brands. But it has also changed our expectations as far as shopping convenience. The opening phrase of this Wall Street Journal article was meant as an attention grabber: The Internet is moving to a shopping center near you.
And indeed, the article explains how data center operators are leasing and transforming huge acreage of floor space in declining shopping malls, to turn them into data centers. Ironically, these data centers may in turn be hosting the servers that run the eCommerce sites that are replacing the physical stores – either the sites of these stores, or more likely of competing online retailers that managed to steal their market share.
Some of these stores were meant to shut down anyway – this is part of the natural (and controversial) evolution of the economic landscape. Walmart did not wait for the internet age to put mom-and-pop groceries and convenience stores out of business, and shutter entire downtown shopping districts. But online book retail finished to kill all but a few remaining physical bookstores, main street travel agents are almost extinct, and the few electronics retailers who still thrive, do so by combining their brick-and-mortar deployment with a strong online retail strategy.
And indeed, not every purchase is meant to happen online. In fact, there are plenty of purchases for which a combination of in-store and online interactions is best. For example, when I last bought a TV, I did my research online (at the expense of 6 months of spam), but went to buy it in a store – because it’s bulky and thus expensive to ship, and because I wanted it immediately.
More and more brands and retailers are toying with the store/showroom concept, pioneered by Apple. The showroom enables consumers to touch products, to engage with a specialist. The online store lets them do more advanced research, in an asynchronous mode. And at the end of the day, it does not really matter where they buy: online, in-store, online with in-store delivery… as long as they buy from the retailer.
And this is indeed the key. The retailer needs to own and drive the full customer experience to get their business. Otherwise, their site may be a wonderful research tool, their store a great showroom, but consumers will finalize the purchase somewhere else. Let consumers navigate between the store and the internet – and back.
(photo credit: Robert.Harker, Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)