Ecommerce Hits the Bricks with Retail Locations

Why are brands that started as purely online businesses taking a chance and establishing a brick and mortar presence? If you look at how the retail industry has evolved, this seems like a strategic step back. I remember reading about the beauty subscription service BirchBox a few years ago when they were looking to open a retail location, and asking myself, why?

BirchBox had an establishing model that capitalized on merchandising techniques that gave shoppers the illusion of choice by sending them a limited set of sample beauty products to try before they bought. They were able to build a strong following through the excitement of a shopper receiving a “curated” set of beauty products in the mail. It is part surprise, part personal shopper, and part reassurance — that struck a chord with shoppers.

This unique delivery system spawned a whole category of subscription-only brands, which I’ll call the “box” movement. Shoppers can now subscribe to receive anything from gourmet meals to Japanese candy on a monthly basis, where they’ve given some input to their initial tastes, but ultimately it’s up to the brand to consistently send items they enjoy. So when this model has been so successful, opening a retail location seems more like a side-step than an innovation.

If you look closer, this transition back to stores comes from eCommerce brands that are looking to add another layer to the digital shopper experience.

In the past few years, brands like Warby Parker, ModCloth, Nasty Gal, and Bonobos have all set-up a physical presence to advance their online businesses.

They may be starting with a few locations, but the message is clear. The merging of digital with characteristics of a physical retail experience can only help brands overcome some of the challenges the shopper faces when buying online:

1) Brand Relationship

When a retailer only exists online, it’s hard to establish a relationship with your shopper that doesn’t feel marketing driven. Your brand invites shoppers to the site for a sale, asks them via pop-up to join your mailing list, or sends emails full of recommendations at a frequency that borders on harassment. And while these examples are somewhat impersonal, they are vital in initiating a relationship with your shopper.

Warby Parker started shipping eyewear to shoppers’ homes so they could try different styles before ordering. But glasses can be a big commitment for a shopper; they’re worn every day and replaced maybe once a year. But after hearing from shoppers that they wanted another way to test styles, Warby Parker opened a store in New York to help shoppers connect with the brand outside of the mailbox. Ultimately, a Warby Parker store allows shoppers to get style advice and reassurance from staff as they try different styles, creating a more personal bond that extends their relationship with the brand.

2) Product Interaction

In retail, sizes, styles, and cuts are particular to a brand, which means that a lot of shoppers will hesitate to pull the trigger on a purchase. In the case of brands like ModCloth and Nasty Gal, who curate collections from a wide range of unique designers, this pain is particularly poignant for their shoppers. Despite having size guides, lots of photos, shopper reviews and customer service chat on demand, you can’t replicate the experience of putting a real item on your body.

The “fit” process is a pillar of brick and mortar retail – it’s routine to carry a few of each sized item in your floor set so the shopper can literally try before they buy. By opening a single location in their hometowns, these brands are giving their customer base the opportunity to interact with real clothing. And once they do, that shopper develops a comfort and a confidence in shopping the rest of your catalogue, be it online or in store.

3) Customization

When a shopper engages with a sales associate, they have a guide who can provide details about colors and sizes, recommend products based on taste or promote services the shopper may need. And it’s this process that eCommerce brands want to replicate on their website through Personalization; digitizing the sales associate through campaigns, recommendations, emails and chat features. But even with a technological substitute, brands can fall short of truly customizing products and experiences to shoppers online.

Bonobos took a slightly different approach to the brick and mortar location by setting up Guideshops. These are appointment-only locations where the shopper receives one-on-one service, is guided through the shop inventory, can have items fitted, and then ordered. And instead of walking out with a shopping bag, their perfectly fitting clothes are delivered to their home. This individually focused experience enhances the bond between the shopper and the brand with a face to face extension of their value proposition. And these positive brand feelings will carry over to the next eCommerce visit.

Final Thoughts

I know it’s tempting to believe that shoppers are evolving beyond the brick and mortar store, and that by this point they are so comfortable online that brands can safely focus on growing eCommerce. But the physical store remains a major part of the overall retail experience. Brick and mortar has created an expectation around what a shopping experience is, and in many ways eCommerce attempts to replicate that level of engagement and satisfaction for the shopper. But digital retail is still falling short in recreating the complete experience. And where eCommerce has turned to in store best practices in the past, to develop features like product recommendations and activity based campaigns, there is still more to learn.

As eCommerce becomes more sophisticated, businesses that can recognize gaps in brand relationship, product interaction and customization for their shoppers have an opportunity to bring the best of retail to eCommerce. In doing so, brands such as Warby Parker and Bonobos have moved from testing a single concept store into scaling their national presence, all through the support of their ecommerce communities.

Hillary Wilmoth

Hillary Wilmoth is the senior product marketing manager at Reflektion. Having worked in merchandising, consumer products, publishing, analytics and technology over the past 9 years, you might think she has ADD; but each marketing role was shopper-focused and research-driven. Hillary is a native of Baltimore, and, no, it’s not exactly like The Wire.