The Future of Shopping: Brick-and-Mortar Stores Are Making a Comeback
BY CHRISTIE BRYDON
Main Street ain’t what it used to be. Downtown centers of days past were typically lined with coffee shops, independent bookstores, and retail. Today? Many struggle to attract the foot traffic to stay open. (See: Borders bookstores.)
There’s also a little newcomer called “online shopping” that thrust 10% of retail spending into the digital sphere. While it may not sound like a lot, some industries feel that shift more strongly than others: In 2015, over half of Target visitors shopped on a smartphone or tablet.
Moreover, nearly half of U.S. households have an Amazon Prime membership. (See again: Borders bookstores.) And they’re not just using it to watch “Mozart in the Jungle.” Amazon revenue quintupled in the past six years alone, reaching $80 billion in 2016.
Will the shopping cart become obsolete? Not quite—but smart brick-and-mortar stores are undergoing a major transformation to keep up with the times. Trendsetting Gen Z’ers just might lead the movement, as a recent study indicated 77% prefer to buy in-store. We’re in for a retail renaissance.
Consumers are scrolling instead of strolling—so how does a physical storefront adapt? By giving shops the one thing that digital can’t: a real-life, engaging experience.
Consider this all-too-common situation: You make the trip to a store in search of jeans. Browsing several racks or styles, you might pick up five pairs to try on, only to find that your favorite style isn’t available in your size that day. Either you call it a loss and go home, or you immediately go to the site and order online. That’s why stores are evolving from physical inventory spaces to interactive enablers of online shopping.
Take Zara, a ubiquitous fast-fashion retailer that’s bringing the two best features of online shopping (easy searching and fast payment) onto the floor. Some locations in the company’s home country of Spain come equipped with smart dressing rooms, which allow shoppers to request different colors or sizes right on a tablet. And some will reportedly introduce self-checkout, so paying could be just as simple as tapping away on a screen.
Smart mirrors in Rebecca Minkoff dressing rooms include options to select different sizes, lighting adjustments, and recommendations for accessories. Image courtesy of Reality Interactive.
Enter the digitized dressing rooms in a Rebecca Minkoff store and you’ll feel like you’re online shopping, but instead of your living room, you’re in a store. When a consumer brings clothes into the dressing room, RFID tags identify the garments and post them up on a smart mirror. Images pair with buttons to request a different color or size, plus recommendations for accessories or other garments. Hate fluorescent lighting? Choose options like “dusk” to dim the bulbs and set your own environment.
Bonobos’ brick and mortar locations offer a place to try things on in person, then make a digital purchase that’s shipped to the customer’s home. Image courtesy of Bonobos (via fashiontrendsdaily.com).
Others are completely flipping the retail model, like Bonobos. The popular menswear line has over 30 stores (called “Guideshop Locations”) nationwide, but none of them have traditional cash registers. Instead, a “Guide” assists shoppers through the Bonobos line and puts in a digital order (with free shipping, by the way) to arrive at your door in just a few days. It satisfies hands-on shoppers that prefer to test the look and fit of clothing before purchasing, and guarantees that the place is always stocked, since nothing actually leaves the store.
Online eyewear retailer Warby Parker’s popular “Home Try-On” program lets you test five frames for five days before making a decision. Image courtesy of Cori Lynn (dresscorilynn.com).
Understandably, some items are just better to try on in person than online. It’s not easy to guess if a pair of glasses will look good, simply by looking at pictures from different angles. That’s where Warby Parker comes in. While the frames favorite has locations in many major cities, its online experience makes it just as easy to find the right frames at home. Its popular “Home Try-On” program sends five frames of your choice to your door, giving you five days to test them out. Once you have a favorite, simply ship them all back and order the winner online. The future is looking good.
Change isn’t limited to apparel. Millennials are especially less likely to shop for food in the traditional sense, like a weekly Sunday trip to a supermarket. Instead, many—especially millennial males—shop frequently at convenience stores. Easy locations and expanded offerings contribute to changing patterns, and they now represent over 10% of food and beverage purchases for that age group.
Skip the line at AmazonGo convenience stores—the app charges automatically for your groceries as you grab them. Image courtesy of globalfuturist.org.
At every grocery store, the worst part of the experience is waiting in line. Turns out, that might not even be in our future. Amazon opened an experimental convenience store called AmazonGo earlier this year. Customers simply open an app as they enter, which will automatically track everything they “buy” (seriously, just take the items from the shelves and put ’em into your bag). Then they walk right out the door. However, we can’t expect the concept to spread any time soon, as the current technology caps at about 20 people inside the store.
For those that just can’t handle the monumental burden of entering a store (such a drag), Amazon also has you covered with AmazonFresh Pickup. The e-commerce giant recently unveiled two sites in Seattle for an employee beta test. Amazon Prime members can shop for groceries online and schedule a pick-up time, and an AmazonFresh employee will bring their pre-packed groceries right to the car. No carts, no lines, no cashiers.
Realistically, the future of shopping will happen both online and in person. From tech-savvy clothing stores to drive-thru groceries, we’re in for what we love most: options and great experiences.