WHEN RETAIL IS LITERALLY EVERYWHERE, WHEN WE CAN BUY VIRTUALLY ANYTHING OFF OUR PHONES AND HAVE IT DELIVERED, WHY GO TO A STORE?Pessimistic pundits claim that “show-rooming” and the explosive growth of ecommerce will be the death of brick-and-mortar retail. But by drawing inspiration from the kinds of social experiences Americans crave—live-action football games, rousing concerts, moving religious services and the like—retailers stand to reap big profits even as they prove the pundits wrong, writes Crosby Renwick, executive director of strategy at brand agency and retail design consultancy CBX, in a May 30 column published at Chain Store Age Online.
“Is retail really dead?” Renwick asks in the piece. “No, but its role is changing.” The veteran CBX strategist begins the column—titled “‘Social Retail’ to the Rescue”—by outlining the basic problem as just about everyone sees it: “When retail is literally everywhere, when we can buy virtually anything off our phones and have it delivered, why go to a store?” he writes.
But while Renwick concedes that many stores will close in the decades to come—particularly those focused on commoditized goods that shoppers can easily buy online—he describes the rise of ecommerce as an opportunity for retail to refocus. “When Pablo Picasso was asked if painting human figures was still possible after the technologies of photography and cinema were depicting them much more truly, his response was, ‘Now at least we know everything that painting isn’t,’” Renwick writes. “Technology had killed painting’s previous purpose: depiction. But, on the other hand, technology freed painting to become something else.”
Likewise, the proper role of retail in the 21st century is not to sell humdrum commodities in cavernous, uninspiring big-box stores, Renwick writes. “What to do with the empty storefronts?” he asks in the piece. “The success of social media provides the clue because it highlights the deep desire for human connection. People get lonely. They’ll pay for the chance to enjoy real-world social experiences with others who have similar interests.”
Renwick describes several popular—and in some case, expensive—social experiences that continue to inspire consumers. But the point is not to try replicate, say, a Bruce Springsteen concert, but to tap into the brand-, traffic- and loyalty-building potential that is inherent to such an experience. “These are the kinds of social experiences people pay money for,” he writes. “Am I suggesting a chain of stores that hosts rock concerts? No. But lessons drawn from these social experiences can and should be applied to retail. Lululemon has already done so with its in-store yoga classes. Likewise, I’d love a store where I could buy clothes that speak to the sensibilities of the classic rock fan. Where the staff would ‘get’ me.”
Shopping in a physical store has to be as much about social experiences, unique environments and customer validation as it is about the merchandise, Renwick notes in the conclusion to the piece. “Today’s shoppers can have nearly any merchandise brought right to their doors with little more than the swipe of a finger,” he writes. “But if we can bring them the kinds of experiences that forge memories, friendships and lifelong brand loyalties, they will keep getting in their cars and coming to us.”