Bricks and Mobile · Customer-centric · Digital · e-commerce

Physical retail: Definitely different, far from dead

From recent headlines you might assume that sales in brick & mortar stores must be falling off a cliff. You’d be wrong. Yes, e-commerce is growing at a much faster rate, but revenues in physical stores remain positive (1%-2% growth depending on the source). There is also a sense that online shopping is becoming the dominant way most people shop. In fact, even with a dramatic share shift, e-commerce still represents less than 10% of total retail sales and is expected to remain below 20% even 5 years from now.

Moreover, if physical retail is dying somebody should tell well established (and quite profitable) retailers like Aldi, Apple, Costco, TJX, Dollar General, Dollar Tree, Nordstrom, H&M, Ulta and Sephora. Collectively they’ve announced plans to open about 3,000 stores. Newer brands–think, Bonobos, Casper, Warby Parker–that were once dubbed geniuses for their “digitally native” strategy are now opening dozens of physical stores as their online-only plans proved limited and unprofitable. A little outfit from Seattle also has recently made a pretty big bet on physical retail.

So the constant media references to a “retail apocalypse” may serve as great clickbait, but they lack both accuracy and nuance. I believe we’re all better served by not painting the industry with too broad a brush and spinning false narratives.

Nevertheless, it is crystal clear that years of overbuilding, failure to innovate on the part of most traditional retailers, shifting customer preferences and market-share grabs from transformative new models that aren’t held to a traditional profit standard (mostly the little outfit in Seattle) are creating fundamentally new dynamics.  Physical retail is not going away, but digital disruption is transforming most sectors of retail profoundly. Here are a few important things to bear in mind:

Good enough no longer is. Mediocre retailers were protected for years by what was once scarce: scarcity of product and pricing information, scarcity of assortment choice, scarcity of strong local competition, scarcity of convenient ways for product delivery. Digital commerce has created anytime, anywhere, anyway access to just about everything and the weaknesses of many retailers’ business models have been laid bare. Traditional retailers’ failure to innovate over the past decade has put quite a few in an untenable position from which they will never recover. It turns out they picked a really bad time to be so boring.

E-commerce is important. Digital-first retail is more important. The rise of e-commerce is having a dramatic effect on shopping behavior but it is not the most disruptive factor in retail. What’s far more transformative is the fact that most customer journeys for transactions that ultimately occur in a brick & mortar location start in a digital channel–and increasingly that means on a mobile device. In fact, digitally-influenced physical stores sales are far greater than all of e-commerce. Many brands’ failure to understand this reality caused them to waste a lot of time and money building strong online capabilities at the expense of keeping their stores and the overall shopping experience relevant and remarkable.

Physical and digital work in concert. A retail brand’s strong digital presence drives brick & mortar sales and vice versa. When different media and transactional channels work in harmony, the brand is more relevant. When any aspect is unremarkable or creates friction, the brand suffers. Too often, traditional retailers treat digital and physical retail as two distinct entities when most customers are, as some like to say, “phygital.”  Moreover, with the exception of products that can literally be delivered digitally (books, games, music), there is rarely any inherent reason why the rise of e-commerce should make a substantial number of physical stores completely irrelevant. Retailers that are closing a lot of stores most often have a business model problem, not a “too many stores” problem.

The future will not be evenly distributed. Clearly, there are brands and retail categories that are being “Amazon-ed.”  There are also sectors that have been in long-term decline (department stores and many regional malls), whose troubles have little to do with what’s transpired most recently. Still others have remained largely immune from the disruptive forces that are hitting others so hard. Off-price chains, warehouse clubs, dollar stores and gas stations all come to mind. Grocery shopping has also seen little impact, though that’s likely to change. It’s also important to note that some forces that are shaping the industry have little to do with e-commerce vs. physical stores shopping or the notion that Amazon is eating the world. Many sectors are being hit by a fundamental change in shopping behavior (a shift to experiences away from stuff, a tendency to trade down to lower price points) that has nothing to do with how spending is being reallocated away from brick & mortar to online. Your mileage may vary.

To be sure, a degree of panic is appropriate in some circles. It’s obvious that many retailers spent more time defending the status quo and burying their heads in the sand during the past decade than they did understanding the consumer and being committed to innovation. Some retailers need to adapt. Some need to transform the customer experience fundamentally. Others just need to go away. Most need to take bold and decisive action to stay relevant and remarkable in a very different and constantly evolving world.

The big question is whether they will act while they still have time.

A version of this story recently appeared at Forbes, where I am a retail contributor. You can check out more of my posts and follow me here.

2 thoughts on “Physical retail: Definitely different, far from dead

  1. Gas stations have certainly started to be affected, and they will have to evolve (charging stations, destinations for other quick purchases), or the weaker ones will go away, similar to what is happening in “traditional retail”.

  2. Steve,
    Great blog! I agree with you in the sense that eCommerce will not completely eliminate brick and mortar stores. I think that people still value the actual stores to look at the product physically before they buy it. In my example I would never buy shoes or clothing online because I am concerned about not fitting properly. Online stores have forced brick and mortar stores to be more efficient and cost competitive.
    Thanks,

    Gaddiel

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