Pity the poor retailer.

stephanie-fierman-grocery-shopping.jpgVandalism.  Gobs of costly employees. Shoplifting. Huge shipping costs. Rent, utilities and facilities expenses. Oh yes, and sales stink.

So the last thing the modern proprietor needs is to be compared to a storeeee innnn spaceeee… But Brandweek did just that when it published  “Why Can’t Shopping Be More Like Online Shopping?” (or “Why Retailers Should Be Acting More Webby” online*) a full-page editorial lamenting why oh why “regular” stores can’t be more like online ones.  Why bricks and mortar establishments aren’t taking “advantage” of all the stuff that “online competitors have been perfecting” for years.

Hmm.  Stores are far from perfect (my grocery store was renovated recently, and now I can’t find a darn thing) but come on.

Let’s take the points raised in this article one by one and give a quick, incomplete-but-adequate response regarding the practicality/reasonableness of each:

* Product reviews.  Where would a retailer put product reviews in a store where everyone would see them?  Who would be responsible for keeping them current? Who would be responsible for mending/replacing them if they were damaged or defaced? How could a chain retailer ensure 100% compliance across its network?

* Bestsellers. Pretty much “ditto” to the above.stephanie-fierman-online-shopping.jpg

* Search.  This one’s just mean. Stores have been experimenting with kiosks for years with mixed results.  Brands that want to experiment with shelf displays typically need to send their own people in to do it (expensive, time-consuming). The writer refers to a test that Campbell’s tried years ago. It alphabetized its soups in-store.  Result? They sold less soup.  And store maps? Who can read one of those and where the heck is it?

* Affinity. Since 10 out of 10 shoppers who walk through the door are looking for different items and would be lost if some products where re-grouped with others just because someone thought it should be that way. And if we’re talking about posting suggestions near products, see above for Reviews and Bestsellers.

* Brevity. The writer wishes there was a “convenience aisle” for check-out.  There is (15 items or less please). But when a store’s busy, you’re going to wait behind a bunch of people.  When was the last time you had to wait behind a bunch of people while checking out online?

And with this last point, I tip my hand: the presence and need for multiple (indeed, masses of) human shoppers and workers to make a store location on dry land work is the reason that my local grocer will never be like FreshDirect.  It’s not just money and profits that keep live retailers from taking on characteristics of Web shopping, as the article hypothesizes.  Some things, for all intents and purposes, are simply not able to be done well in the real world.

But if we ask why online shopping isn’t more like regular shopping, the good reason is also human interaction: a person that helps you figure out whether that sweater is black or navy. A greeter at the door who says “Hello” and thanks you for coming. A saleswoman who knows just by looking at you what size will work, and will give you an opinion on an outfit if you ask. A butcher who will tell you which cut of meat to buy when two choices look exactly alike.  A person who will give you a smile (or more) on a crummy day.  Oh, and I can go out and be home in less than an hour with the stuff I need.

Are there cranky and/or incompetent salespeople in stores?  You bet.  And websites malfunction, are often inscrutable and crash once in awhile.  Nobody’s perfect (not even technology).

So there you have it:  in real life, it takes a village to sell merchandise that one or two people can sell online – and that’s always going to be messy/ier.  Life’s not always pretty.  Cut your favorite store some slack.  Use channels and experiences for what each is good for and don’t bother wondering why reading online (or on a Kindle) can’t be more like holding a real book or vice versa.  There’s room in the universe for both.

* Dear Brandweek: You gave the article I tore out of my subscription copy an entirely different title on your website, thereby making it easier for me to find in the physical world than the online one.  Go figure.

 

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