Embrace the blur · Frictionless commerce · Retail

Physical stores: Assets or liabilities?

Of course the obvious answer is “well, that depends.”

As the intersection of economic feasibility and consumers’ willingness to adopt new technology hit a tipping point, for retailers that had invested big bucks in the brick-and-mortar distribution of music, books and games, the answer changed rather dramatically. Today’s retail apocalypse narrative is nonsense. But it wasn’t so long ago that the tsunami of digital disruption very quickly turned the physical store network of Barnes & Nobles, Blockbuster, Borders and others into massive liabilities. While we can argue about whether any of those brands laid to waste by Amazon, Netflix et al. could have responded better (spoiler alert:the answer is “yes”), it’s hard to imagine a scenario for any of them that would have included a fleet of stores remotely resembling what was in place a decade ago.

Most of the so-called digitally native vertical brands that are disrupting retail today—think Warby Parker, Bonobos, Indochino—started with the premise that not only were physical stores unnecessary, they would soon become totally irrelevant. In fact, about six years ago, I remember asking the founder of one of these brands when they were going to open stores. He looked at me with the earnest confidence of someone who had just received a huge check with a Sand Hill Road address on it and said, “we’re never opening stores.” Clearly, at the time, he saw stores as liabilities. He wasn’t alone. Everlane’s CEO made a similar, but more public statement.

So for several years scores of startups attracted massive amounts of venture capital on the belief that profitable businesses could scale rapidly without having to invest in physical retail outlets. A key part of the investment thesis was that stores were undesirable given the high cost of real estate, inventory investment and operational support. Clearly the underlying premise was that stores were inherent liabilities. So it’s more than a little bit ironic, dontcha’ think, that my friend’s company has since opened dozens of stores, that Everlane just opened its second location (with more to follow I’m sure) and that many other once staunchly online only players are now seeing most of their future growth coming from brick-and-mortar locations.

For legacy retailers, particularly as e-commerce took off, many acted as if much of their investment in physical real estate was turning into a liability—or at least an asset to be “rationalized” or optimized. This underscores a fundamental misunderstanding of what was happening. Too many stayed steeped in channel-centric, silo-ed thinking and action. They saw e-commerce as a separate channel, with its own P&L. Because of this, they underinvested (or went way too slowly) because they couldn’t see their way clear to making the channel profitable. Before long they got the worst of both worlds: They found themselves not participating in the upside growth of online shopping while losing physical store sales to Amazon or traditional retailers that were pursuing a robust “omni-channel” strategy.

To be sure, the overbuilding of commercial real estate was going to lead to a shakeout at some point. Digital shopping growth enables many retailers to do the same (or more) business with fewer locations or smaller footprints. Yet I would argue that most of the retailers that find themselves with too many stores (or stores that are way over-spaced) rarely have a fundamental real estate problem—they have a brand problem. The retailers that consistently deliver a remarkable retail experience, regardless of channel, are closing few if any stores. In fact, brands as diverse as Apple, Lululemon, Ulta—and dozens of others—have strong brick-and-mortar growth plans.

What sets most of these winning retailers apart is that they deeply understand the unique role of a physical shopping experience in a customer’s journey and act accordingly. They know that digital drives physical and vice versa. They started breaking down the silos in their organizations years ago—or never set them up in the first place. They accept that talking about e-commerce and brick and mortar is mostly a distinction without a difference and know that it’s all just commerce. And they embrace the blur that shopping has become. They see their stores as assets. Different and evolving assets certainly, but assets all the same.

On the heels of recent strong retail earning reports (and an increase in store openings) some are starting to pivot from the narrative that physical retail is dying to one that is closer to all is now well. Both lack nuance. We can chalk up some positive momentum to the fact that a rising economic tide tends to lift all ships. We can peg some of the ebullience to Wall Street waking up to facts that were plain to see for quite some time.

What is most important over the longer-term, however, is to understand the root causes of why and where physical retail works and why and where it doesn’t. Whether it’s Casper, Glossier, Warby Parker, Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Williams-Sonoma, Sephora or many others, the formula is pretty much the same. Deeply understand the customer journey, and whether it’s a digital channel or physical channel, root out the friction and amplify the most relevant and memorable aspects of the customer experience.

When we do this we see the unique role a physical presence can (and often should) play in delivering something remarkable. The answer will be different depending on a brand’s customer focus and value proposition. But armed with this understanding we can design the business model (and ultimately the physical retail strategy) knowing that the channels complement each other and the desire is to harmonize them. At this point the question is not whether stores are an asset or a liability, it’s which aspects of brick and mortar’s unique advantages to lean into and leverage.

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

Over the next few weeks I’ll be in Dallas, Austin, Chicago, Toronto and San Antonio delivering an updated version of my keynote “A Really Bad Time To Be Boring.” For more info on my speaking and workshops go here.