So much of what a consumer does from day to day takes place online. They shop online, communicate digitally, use connected voice assistants in their daily routine, and expect their phones to be within arms’ reach at all times.
Here’s the million dollar question: Is it really worth it to have a brick-and-mortar store in this digital age? All signs point to yes.
How Going Digital Has Changed Retail Practices
There are those who believe that we have become fully-digitized as a society, that we crave nothing more from our daily lives than an ever-changing screen and the possibility of consumption at our fingertips.
This point of view is partially true. As mentioned above, consumers are more connected than ever before, and retailers have tried to keep up by changing their internal and external practices. Some have bought into the myth that brick-and-mortar locations are on their deathbed, closing a large portion of their locations and shifting their focus to e-commerce, which comes with less overhead and is seen as more convenient for their customers.
This step away from an in-person experience may prove profitable in the short term for retailers. However, over the course of the next decade, as loyalty becomes a signifier of success within this space, consumers will flock to brick-and-mortar stores, hoping for something more from their shopping experience.
Why Having Brick-and-Mortar Locations (and Excellent Staff) is an Advantage
That’s right – an advantage. Having an on-the-ground location is about so much more than clout and presence. As the obsession with digitization begins to fade, and all that’s left is a conversation about authenticity and connection, a brick-and-mortar location will become a necessity.
Consumers crave an experience
Let’s start with the clearest reason why brick-and-mortar stores appeal to consumers: the desire for experience. As we mentioned in our recap of NRF’s Big Show, this buzzword is everywhere in retail. Consumers live in a world of overwhelming choice, and a genuine retail experience can be the differentiator that makes the difference, securing their loyalty and potentially turning them into an advocate for your store.
It goes without saying that a digital experience just can’t give a customer the kind of connection that they crave. They want to walk into a store and understand the company’s ethos, to have their needs predicted and procured. In a brick-and-mortar location, they can touch and feel your product offerings, and see them on the shelf next to comparable items, making the decision for themselves instead of relying on AI. Here, they can ask an employee for help or more information, leaning on the expertise that an in-the-flesh human provides instead of a chat feature on a website. A physical store is an experiential extension of your brand in a way that a mobile app could never be. When it comes down to it, there’s really just one thing that your customers want: to feel like they’re a part of something more.
Employees are your experts
What’s the #1 thing that your physical stores have that a digital experience doesn’t? An experienced, knowledgeable, real-life staff.
As a part of your quest to give your customers an engaging, memorable experience within your store, it’s important not to discount the importance of having an incredible staff on hand. In today’s retail world your employees are your in-store experts. They are on the front lines talking to your customers each and every day, answering their questions, and acting as a direct extension of your brand.
That’s something you won’t find in an online store, and, trust me, your customers know this. They come into your store expecting a leveled-up experience, an opportunity to connect on a deeper level with your store and your employees. Lean into these one-on-one connections by providing your employees with more extensive training, offering insights into your core customer, and rewarding employees who exemplify excellent customer service.
Instant gratification has a unique appeal
While some major markets have been able to attain same day delivery from retailers like Amazon, much of the country is still operating on a 2-5 day shipping schedule for most products that are purchased online. Having a brick-and-mortar store allows you to tap into a consumer’s inherent need for instant gratification, giving you the upper hand over e-commerce focused retailers.
For grocers specifically, an in-person, instantly gratifying experience can be as simple as a customer picking up a bag of chips, a pack of gum, or a soft drink at your register. Instead of having to wait for a grocery delivery later in the day (or even days later), your customer can have the snacks that they’re craving now, now. Digital stores can’t offer the kind of instant gratification that your brick-and-mortar stores can, and your customers will seek them out because of it.
Omnichannel buying habits are common among consumers
With all the talk of digitization in the retail space, one might think that consumers have given up on in-store purchases altogether, cycling through their entire customer journey on the internet. We imagine them deciding that they want a product and immediately purchasing it online in just a few clicks without further investigation. Consumer habits show that that’s just not true.
In fact, consumer buying habits are becoming more integrated and complicated than ever before. Before making a purchase, it’s likely that a customer will research a product online, head to a brick-and-mortar store to see it, feel it, try it on, taste it for themselves before either buying that product in-store or heading back home to make the purchase online. This is especially relevant for luxury items, but can also ring true for grocers.
Imagine one of your customers thinking that they want to try a new type of granola this week. They’ll probably go online and begin a series of searches like “What is the crunchiest granola?”, or, “What granola brand is best for a parfait?” After whittling down their options, they’ll probably make a note of their findings for the next time that they are in your store so they can feel the bag of granola for themselves, get an accurate picture of how much granola is in each package, and determine whether or not they’re going to buy it. Their decision to purchase (or not to purchase) is heavily influenced by the research that they’ve done online, but ultimately comes down to their in-store product experience. There’s that word again.
The future of retail is based in a consumer’s omnichannel decisions, and if you’re a retailer without a brick-and-mortar location, you’ll fall behind.
Though it’s true that consumers are spending a majority of their time online, it’s not time to count physical stores out yet. For the reasons I mentioned above, your staff and stores actually put you at an advantage in this digital era, giving you a chance to authentically connect with your customers and build the type of loyalty that will keep them coming back.