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Physical retailing isn’t dead just yet: Experts

Some retailers are making bold new bets on bricks-and-mortar, according to panelists at the Retail Council of Canada’s STORE conference in Toronto last week. So how can technology help street-level stores survive in the digital age?


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My sister-in-law is a brave woman.

Five years ago, she ordered her wedding gown … on the Internet. She picked out a style, typed in her measurements, then waited weeks for them to make it from scratch and ship it to her … from somewhere in Asia. Why?

“It’s way cheaper,” she told me. “And it’s so easy.”

Laine Ferguson uttered similar words during a panel at the Retail Council of Canada’s STORE conference in Toronto last week.

“There’s got to be a reason (for customers) to go into a store. It’s so easy to shop online,” said Ferguson, VP of retail at The Body Shop.

A brand-new survey appears to back that up. When PwC asked 1,000 Canadian consumers to list the main reasons for shopping online, convenience came out on top, garnering 46 per cent of responses.

Clearly, the easy peasy convenience factor is pulling more shoppers onto the Internet — and out of brick-and-mortar stores. In PwC’s study, more than half of respondents — 57 per cent — said they already shop online weekly or monthly.

Is physical retail being killed off by ecommerce?

Jeff Booth, CEO of Vancouver-based online renovation retailer BuildDirect, certainly thinks so.

“It’s dead. In 10 years I think it will all be done online,” he predicted in a recent interview with me.

Wayfair thinks so, too. The online-only furniture retailer launched a Canadian website in January. Based in Boston, the company sells more than seven million items from 7,000 suppliers. In 2015 its revenue jumped 70 per cent while its active customer base rose 66 per cent to 5.4 million shoppers.

And yet, some retailers are actually making bold new bets on bricks-and-mortar. HBC plans to open up to 20 stores in the Netherlands by 2018. Indochino, an online-only men’s clothier based in Vancouver, is setting up 150 physical stores by 2020. Even Amazon has opened two bookstores in the U.S.

It looks like physical retailing isn’t dead just yet. How can technology help street-level stores survive in the digital age?

At the STORE conference, Ferguson described how The Body Shop is using mobile and social. The company has set up a “video content factory” in its office to create short videos that can be posted on social media or shared internally to provide motivation and recognition for employees. Some staff have been given iPhones so they can shoot videos of new products being unboxed, again for social media sharing.

Her fellow panelist, Home Hardware CEO Terry Davis, said his chain is focused on extracting more value from data and integrating its online and physical channels. It created an internal app for staff smartphones so in-store workers can fill ecommerce orders faster and easier.

Third panelist Sean Taylor is the general manager of Wine Rack. Although his firm does sell wine online, it’s emphasizing the in-person environment even more than technology.

“It’s all about the guest experience inside our stores,” Taylor said

That means teaching store managers how to motivate and communicate well with employees ranging from millennials to 60 year olds, he said. It also means training store workers how to identify and serve various types of customers based on common “personality shopping profiles.”

Davis said Home Hardware is pushing for more personal service in its stores as well. In one staff exercise, each employee must learn something about a customer that day and share those insights with the rest of the team.

Similar scenes are playing out at The Body Shop, Ferguson revealed.

“We’ve just started training (staff) on empathy, seeing things from the customer’s point of view. It’s a lot more listening than telling.”

This emphasis on in-store interpersonal skills may pay off. According to PwC’s study, 40 per cent of Canadian consumers feel that “a knowledgeable sales associate would make their in-store shopping experience better.”

Mobile, video, social and analytics are necessary technology tools for both online and in-store retail channels today. For physical retailers in particular, however, it might be just as important to invest in empathy as in ecommerce.

Illustration courtesy of Free Digital Photos

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