Brick and mortar shops, otherwise known as physical retail shops, have been on the receiving end of the digitalization of the last decade, negatively speaking. They took a big hit during the Covid pandemic, while subsequently trying to fend off enormous online marketplaces such as Amazon. Will this be the last years of brick and mortar shops or will physical retail still hold its ground amidst the e-commerce era?
Is the end near?
Supposedly that is the belief of the so-called brick and mortar pessimists. It is true that e-commerce is gaining ground, helped by ever-advancing technologies. Online shopping offers consumers convenience with an around-the-clock shopping possibility from anywhere and oftentimes lower prices. Next to that, it is convenient for sellers, seeing that their overhead is way lower than with physical stores. Adding to brick-and-mortar woes are the high operational costs associated with physical stores. From rent and utilities to personnel expenses, these fixed costs are becoming increasingly unsustainable, especially when compared to the flexible, scalable models of online businesses. In short, the belief is that the rise of e-commerce has made physical stores obsolete and that consumers will continue to shift towards online shopping. They appear caught in a perfect storm of changing consumer preferences, economic pressures, and technological advancements that favor their online counterparts. But is this really the end of brick and mortar or only the end of brick and mortar as we know it?
Brick and mortar resilience
Yes, it is impossible for physical retail stores to pretend nothing happened and carry on in the same way. The narrative of decline often surrounding brick-and-mortar retail in the face of e-commerce dominance is not only overstated but also overlooks the dynamic adaptability these stores have demonstrated. Far from succumbing to digital competition, many physical retailers are harnessing the very tools of the digital era to revitalize their businesses. Some might say the sector is witnessing an evolution, not an extinction. This change is most evident in the ways brick-and-mortar stores are integrating technology, not to compete with online shopping, but to enhance what it cannot offer—the physical experience. Moreover, human interaction remains a significant component of shopping. The guidance, reassurance, and immediate responses that staff provide can dramatically enhance the customer experience.
One significant trend is the adoption of omnichannel strategies. Retailers are blending the digital and physical realms to offer a seamless shopping experience. Customers might explore products online and then visit a physical store for the final purchase, or they might buy online and pick up in-store. This strategy plays to the strengths of both worlds, offering the convenience of e-shopping with the tangibility of in-store buying.
This brings us to a critical point often neglected in the discourse—the enduring appeal of the in-person shopping experience. For all the convenience of online shopping, it can’t replicate the sensory aspects of traditional retail. Consumers often prefer to inspect, handle, or try on items, enjoying the immediate gratification that comes with walking out of a store with their purchase in hand. This aspect of tactile consumerism is e-commerce’s undeniable shortcoming.
All in all, what arguably does arrive from these changes is a refreshed narrative that proposes E-commerce and brick and mortar to be complementary forces, each playing to their unique strengths while strategically integrating elements from the other.
For instance with the rise of hybrid retail models. By integrating strategies like ‘click-and-collect’ services, traditional retailers are tapping into the convenience of online shopping, while e-commerce giants are exploring physical showrooms to offer tactile experiences they’ve previously lacked. The ‘click-and-collect’ approach, particularly, illustrates how the digital and physical worlds can create a seamless customer journey, enhancing the retail experience rather than competing on different planes.
- Exemplary: the success stories of various European ventures, especially those of Scandinavian fashion brands, emphasize the opportunities lying in the blend. By establishing pop-up stores in bustling urban areas, these brands magnify their online presence, creating a holistic brand experience that starts on the screen and comes to full fruition in the physical space. This strategy demonstrates that rather than pushing towards extinction, the evolution within the retail sector is fostering new life into the traditional models, proving their resilience and adaptability.
However, the road ahead isn’t without its challenges. Economic pressures, environmental concerns, and technological barriers present complex hurdles for both e-commerce platforms and physical retailers. High operational costs, sustainability scrutiny, and the digital divide are just a few of the multifaceted issues these businesses face. The future of retail will undoubtedly hinge on how these challenges are navigated, demanding a level of adaptability, foresight, and innovation that goes beyond merely adopting new technologies or jumping on the latest trends.
This complex landscape suggests that the true question for retailers isn’t about choosing between online or offline but finding the right balance and integration. What works for one brand may not work for another, as success strategies are influenced by various factors, including regional market dynamics, consumer preferences, and the nature of the products offered. The one-size-fits-all approach is no longer viable in this nuanced marketplace.
In essence, the future of brick-and-mortar stores in the digital age is not a tale of its demise but a story of transformation. The focus for all players in the retail space is to remain fluid, innovative, and customer-centric. By embracing hybrid models, understanding the intricate challenges, and staying open to collaboration across the digital and physical divide, retailers can continue to thrive.
As we collectively explore these new dynamics, it becomes imperative to engage in a broader dialogue about these shifts. What are your insights on this evolution? How do you envision adapting to these changes? Join us in this ongoing conversation, share your perspectives, and together, let’s shape the future of retail in this digitally-integrated world.
Post, R. A., Blijlevens, J., Hekkert, P., Saakes, D., & Arango, L. (2023). Why we like to touch: Consumers’ tactile esthetic appreciation explained by a balanced combination of unity and variety in product designs. Psychology & Marketing.
Sheth, J. N. (2021). Future of brick and mortar retailing: how will it survive and thrive?. Journal of Strategic Marketing, 29(7), 598-607.