Commerce blog | Retail
A Physical Advantage
March 28, 2018
One could argue that the bricks-and-mortar retailers falling into administration or bankruptcy—Toys R Us, Maplin, Multiyork, Bon-Ton Stores—do so in large part because they failed to use service and the in-store experience to differentiate themselves from both big-box retailers and online sellers. The likes of Amazon and Walmart have made it impossible for smaller companies (and just about every retailer is smaller than Amazon and Walmart) to compete on price. What's more, unless you sell merchandise available nowhere else, you cannot compete with the breadth and depth of the internet's endless aisles.
But what a bricks-and-mortar store can do is provide a unique physical—as opposed to virtual, online—experience. As Marc Gingas, CEO of retail solutions provider Foko Retail, recently told me, "The offering needs to be more than just a product; it needs to be a lifestyle."
You've no doubt read about or seen stores that have pulled out all the stops, with VR headsets, dressing-room mirrors that let you see how a garment will look on you in different colors or sizes, and other cool but costly bells and whistles. Fortunately you can offer a standout in-store experience without breaking your budget.
Case in point: Bicycle Habitat. A four-store chain in New York City, it sells bikes—and prides itself on ensuring that its bicycles will fit you perfectly. Its staff, cycling enthusiasts all, are certified in a method of "body geometry" fitting for maximum comfort and performance. It also offers classes in bike repair and even teaches kids—and adults—how to ride a bike. (You know how people say, "Once you learn to ride a bike, you never forget"? It's not true—and I have the scars to prove it.) A website can't provide this sort of individualised, in-person attention and expertise. Bicycle Habitat also hosts weekly rides throughout the city, creating a network of cyclists with itself as the hub.
image: Think you're an expert cyclist? Try biking in Manhattan during rush hour.
Bicycle Habitat offsets the expenses of its classes by charging for them. Some other retailers, however, offer free sessions and seminars, almost akin to book signings, an advantage that physical bookstores have over Amazon. My nearest L.L. Bean store, for instance, holds free one-hour clinics on basic map and compass navigation, local hiking trails, and how to avoid tick bites (especially important up here, not far from the town that gave Lyme Disease its name). A nearby outpost of another outdoor-gear store, REI, offers a marginally less vital but no doubt more entertaining class: "Zombie Preparedness—Surviving a Zombie Apocalypse." I imagine this session attracts less-outdoorsy types who, once they're in the shop, will see that REI sells clothing, travel gear, and gadgets in addition to kayaks, mountain bikes, and skis.
image: Hey, you never know...
And Pat Catan, a regional chain of crafts shops based in Ohio, not only offers free classes and hands-on workshops but some of its stores host knitting and crocheting groups too. Doing so costs the shop virtually nothing, but it all but ensures that those needle workers will buy their supplies on the premises.
Though Lego is, of course, a global toy titan, it also employs low- or no-cost ways to transform its shops into go-to destinations. For instance, some stores host regular swap meets, where kids can trade Minifigures with other kids. Sure, Lego doesn't make money off those swaps—but you know most of those kids are going to walk out of the store with new purchases too. And then there is the Pick & Build Wall. Similar to UK Woolworth's late, lamented Pick 'n' Mix sweets section, it allows kids to grab a plastic cup to fill with their choice of loose Lego bricks from dozens of containers built into a wall.
image: The Lego Pick and Build Wall: Who could resist? Allessandro Valli - Flickr
Even if you don't offer classes or swap meets, hands-on experiences or social gatherings, you can still make your shop a preferred venue by offering the sort of expertise and honest advice that virtual stores can't and many big-box stores won't. The staff at our local hardware store, for instance, have on occasion told us not to buy the pricey tool we'd been recommended online but to go with a less expensive option instead, even though it meant less profit for them. They've also given detailed instructions for embarrassingly basic projects without rolling their eyes or laughing at us (at least not to our face), Perhaps most important, they know how to translate my husband's inchoate descriptions and questions so that they can provide the information he needs. That's the sort of in-store experience that keeps us coming back—and might have kept the customers of Maplin, Multyork, and the like coming back as well.