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What's In Store To Defend The Online Charge?

Monday November 14th, 2011 - 10:18AM

On the verge of yet another all-important holiday retail season (at the time of this column in mid-November), it won’t be long until we hear how Cyber Monday continued its charge on Black Friday as the year’s biggest shopping day.

That will be followed in six weeks by reports about how online sales posted another big increase in holiday sales share.

And that no doubt will fuel another round of declarations by e-tail loyalists that brick-and-mortar stores are heading the way of pay phones and CD players.

The suggestion that stores are totally defenseless against the online sales surge is, of course, extreme. But the clock could be ticking for stores that don’t adapt to a world where electronic shopping options are an ever-present convenience.

Store operators that can infuse the selling floor with a captivating, in-depth digital experience should be more likely to maintain a grip on their real estate. 

Proprietary Content

Stores must satiate the appetite for online shopping information by facilitating access to such content along their aisles. It is imperative, however, to capture in-store shoppers with proprietary online content to keep smartphone-armed customers from comparison-shopping themselves right out the doors.

Such strategy is already in play, be it in-store touch screens that direct shoppers to broader selections (see JCPenney); QR codes on displays that link shoppers to detailed information on products (see Best Buy); or an app that guides shoppers through stores (see Macy’s renovation plans for its Herald Square flagship).

To coax web-bound shoppers from their digital showrooms, retailers should devote more online media to driving store visits. Instead of e-mailing or Tweeting the latest Internet deals, send blasts promoting in-store-only specials. Cultivate viral social media conversations on new in-store experiences.

Rewarding Experience

Meanwhile, store buyers and planners have to deliver rewarding experiences unattainable through e-commerce. With so much more breadth presented online (and with a certain leading e-tailer and its affiliates disinclined to MAP pricing), the pressure is on retail store buyers and their vendors to present unique and valuable in-store offerings— and to keep them in stock— to prevent the migration of potential sales into cyberspace.

It is harder these days to captivate impatient shoppers craving near-instant gratification. A revival of good, old-fashioned, in-store salesmanship could be what it takes to remind people there are some things you just can’t get online.

Sell The Sizzle

There isn’t a computer out there (not yet, at least) that can re-create the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee. Or the sizzle of a stir-fry. Or the whoosh of steam sanitizing a floor. 

Department and specialty stores would seem to have an edge in this arena, and many are recommitting to demonstrations and event-based sales programs. Other store channels should seize the opportunity to benefit from a renewal of interactive merchandising as it was conceived long before Facebook and Twitter.

Veteran retail operators have touted their growing online sales tallies in recent years as a counter to iffy store comps. They also know they will need to balance e-commerce progress with steady, same-store growth. Without sturdy store foundations, brick-and-mortar brands risk becoming tenuously anchored in a sea of online choices.

E-commerce has been a welcome platform in an unstable retail economy, and several innovative e-tailers have earned their place among the most influential merchants in this business.

As brick-and-mortar operators face a mounting charge from digital competition, it will be interesting to see what retailers have in store to pull people through their doors and to keep them coming back during this holiday season and beyond.

—Peter Giannetti