Retail or E-tail?

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As of this writing, the boom times that followed the Great Recession are still in full swing, with unemployment below 5 percent. Yet we see shuttered stores on Main Street. It’s as if our town never got the news. What gives?

E-commerce has transformed shopping habits, shifting attention from street-side retail and toward website e-tail. You can order nearly anything online — food, clothing, books and music, appliances and equipment — and have it delivered to your doorstep, no store visits needed, often for less than you’d pay at the mall. As a result, businesses have cut back on brick-and-mortar locations while Web retail surges.

Still, while it’s easy to order a dress online from JCPenney or Macy’s, it’s gotten harder to try it on first, as chains cut back on the number of outlets. The chief reason to visit a street store is to touch the merchandise; website images don’t quite get it. But lately some customers will visit stores, try stuff on, then go home and order the items cheaper from another company’s website.

As retail square footage shrinks and bandwidth expands, the tension between mail-order and in-store shopping opens up a window for e-tailers who can give patrons a real-world sense of product lines from a home screen. Brick-and-mortar retailers, too, are looking for ways to shift their stance in the new ballgame.

Online businesses have been innovating:

• Many clothing websites will send you items to try on at home.

• You can customize your order by size, color, features, etc., and thus access the entire product line — much more than a brick-and-mortar outlet can stock.

• Many e-tailers provide multiple views of products, and you can zoom in on the images for a more detailed examination.

• Online prescription eyeglass stores let you upload a photo of your face (or you can select an image of a face that resembles yours), click on prospective frames, and view them on the facial image to get a sense of how they’ll look on you in real life.

If you’re an online store owner or web developer, be sure to keep an eye on the technology as it evolves:

• 3-D computer and TV screens will become common, allowing you to replace flat product images with more lifelike ones.

• Some Virtual Reality headsets already allow customers to “walk through” online stores and examine merchandise in much more detail.

• Haptic (touch-sense) gloves will augment V-R headsets so your patrons can “feel” cloth, “heft” items to gauge their weight, and “touch” product surfaces.

• And who knows? Perhaps someday we’ll have “Smell-o-Vision”, along with humidity and temperature simulators, so we can enjoy the often-pleasing atmospheres of retail locations.

These technologies are burgeoning almost faster than we can write about them, so stay up with developments.

Meanwhile, if you’re a committed brick-and-mortar retailer, don’t despair. Advancing tech creates new opportunities for you as well:

• Empty stores mean lower rental costs, which reduces the price advantage of your e-commerce competitors. A shuttered store next to you is a chance to expand your retail operations simply by renting the spare footage and opening up a passageway between.

• Your retail store can promote your e-tail store. Some chains (Bed, Bath & Beyond, for example) encourage patrons to use store computers to order out-of-stock or specialty items directly from the chain’s warehouse. This protects the sale while getting customers into the habit of ordering from the retailer’s own website.

• Driverless vehicles will ease traffic, so getting to your store will be less of a hassle. These cars will need fewer parking spaces, reducing congestion while opening up acreage that downtown business groups can repurpose into, for example, parklike pedestrian avenues for shoppers.

• People like to meet and interact with other people in person, and your store can become a social locale when you add, say, a coffee bar or entertainment corner, or you can host designers, authors, and artists who conduct seminars, demos, and readings.

• Visiting your store becomes something of an event with a Virtual Reality system that teaches patrons how it’ll look and feel to use your products.

The world is transforming in ways we can barely foresee. Retail sales, too, will shift unpredictably. Shop owners and online vendors who keep their fingers on the pulse of that change — and who resist the temptation to sit back and rest on their laurels — will find ways to thrive. It won’t be easy, but it will be interesting … and, if you play it right, it’ll be profitable.

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UPDATE: Retail scene changing quickly

UPDATE: Retail outlet as shipping center (and shipping center as retail outlet?)