Retail resurrection: How the physical shopping experience is more important than ever

During the dawn of online retailing when eBay catapulted onto the scene in the late ’90s, people were already predicting the death of brick-and-mortar stores. This was even before Amazon was a household name.
Yet, despite what some have viewed as a retail apocalypse in the wake of the rise of ecommerce, The Brick believes that physical stores are now more important than ever. As online-born direct-to-consumer brands such as Warby Parker, Indochino, Clearly and online giants like Amazon invest in their own real estate, a clear picture is emerging that brick-and-mortar is the strongest piece of marketing a retailer can invest in. And we’ve positioned ourselves ahead of the curve here in Canada.
Evolving consumer needs
In the past, consumers could only find information about a store’s merchandise through a catalogue or by physically going down to their location to take a look.
Since then, the customer experience in many ways has been recast and consumer needs have changed dramatically. Stores no longer serve as an initial discovery point for consumers, particularly when it comes to product information they can research online themselves. And we’re seeing this manifest in consumer trends. According to information from Forrester, Canadian online retail is expected this year to generate a spend of $39.9 billion, which translates into 9.5 per cent of all retail transactions and is nearly twice the $22.3 billion Canadians spent online in 2014.
Ecommerce has also had a striking impact on brick-and-mortar store traffic, but not necessarily in the way you might expect. Traffic is indeed decreasing year-over-year. However,  in-store conversion rates have increased because consumers are becoming more well-informed from online research before they even step foot in stores. Shoppers who visit stores aren’t just casually browsing. Having done their initial research online, their main purpose for coming into a store is to physically check out the merchandise — feel how comfortable a couch is and run their hands over the texture of the fabric or lie on a mattress to determine its firmness. Canadians can’t seem to let go of this sensory experience — they still complete the vast majority of their purchases in brick-and-mortar store locations.
Reimagining the role of brick-and-mortar
As such, The Brick cannot discount the critical advantage available to us by way of our more than 200 stores across Canada. But to achieve success as consumer needs and demands change, we need to evaluate what purpose those stores must serve.
Typically, a brick-and-mortar store’s success has been measured by sales per square foot. But as the shopping experience moves increasingly toward an omnichannel environment, those traditional measures of in-store success are supplemented with other metrics that allow a more holistic assessment of customer experience across all channels.
Despite the advantages that online retail offers, it can never close that sensory gap. And there is continually increasing competition in the retail space, especially online, so it’s important to find that differentiating factor. Stores can take advantage of this by providing a richer and more immersive in-store experience of their brands. To have someone physically visit your store is the most valuable customer touch point you could have, where you’re able to have their undivided attention while they look at, touch and engage with your products and experience your brand.
A better in-store experience will improve your online sales. And a better online store will improve your brick-and-mortar sales. This shift in retail focus has many starting to consider expenses associated with operating physical store locations to be a portion of their customer acquisition cost (CAC).
Customizing the in-store experience
A store location needs to be more than just a showroom with an assembly line of 30 sofas positioned next to each other. It needs to provide a more immersive experience for the consumer. To this end, we have incorporated many new features in our new location in West Edmonton Mall to make it a more experiential store.
We’ve created more engaging displays that enable shoppers to visualize their own home spaces. Furniture and accessories have been stylized together within themed sections throughout the store, creating inspirational living rooms, bedrooms and dining areas to help customers imagine how items could be incorporated into their own homes.
Our store not only offers a more holistic customer experience, it also represents our values and commitment to the communities in which we operate. Our new West Edmonton Mall location includes the first-of-its-kind Charity Corner where we have a dedicated in-store footprint of our support of the Stollery Children’s Hospital via the Children’s Miracle Network. Here shoppers can buy Brickley bears, snacks and refreshments in support of the Stollery in Edmonton as well as make donations.
Capitalizing on digital advancements
The willingness to see opportunity beyond the trends combined with a strong established relationship with West Edmonton Mall has allowed our company to capitalize on an already popular destination and build it into a crucial flagship location. Though The Brick has always been a firm believer in the power of advertising, the real marketing strength we have is in our store locations across Canada where people can experience it all for themselves.
The online experience has advanced in numerous and inconceivable ways, which has made the purchase decision-making process that much easier for shoppers. Given that there’s so much information available at consumers’ fingertips, it’s changed not only how they shop but also how they demand and use information including during the sales transaction. For instance, we’ve equipped our sales team with tablets for helping serve customers as they shop throughout the store to reduce friction points as they go through the checkout process.
In addition, we’ve introduced our Designed2B iOS and Android app that allows customers to build tailored configurations from The Brick’s Designed2B custom upholstered furniture line (e.g., sofas, loveseats and chairs). This app helps bridge the gap for customers in visualizing how they can create specific furniture pieces in real time so they know exactly what it’s going to look like while streamlining the path to purchase.
Staying ahead of the curve
Without a doubt, traditional retailing has undergone seismic shifts with the growing prevalence and impact of ecommerce retail. As a result, we’ve seen a number of major brick-and-mortar style retailers, such as Sears, close their doors.
So, at a time when the future of brick-and-mortar is under constant scrutiny, The Brick has pivoted in doubling down on our physical presence by moving into the space that Sears formerly occupied in Canada’s most popular shopping centre — West Edmonton Mall.
This new concept, 55,000 square foot location is now our largest store in Edmonton.
Over the course of our nearly 50-year history, we’ve always strived to stay nimble in how we adapt to the ever-changing face of retail. And in doing so, we’ve helped lead the pack when it comes to introducing new ideas and concepts that have become commonplace now (e.g., gifts with purchase and financing options) in a marketplace that’s always in flux.
We’ve never been comfortable with simply maintaining the status quo. We believe in taking visionary, calculated risks. And that’s why we first made the leap to open a furniture store in West Edmonton Mall in the 1980s when it wasn’t common for this type of store to be in shopping centres.
Our 35-year partnership with a retail pioneer in destination shopping like West Edmonton Mall has reinforced our aim to continue breaking new ground for providing enriched customer experiences through innovation. This mindset has enabled us to become what we are today as a homegrown Canadian retailer that has stood the test of time.
By Ken Thrasher, Senior Director, Marketing & Ecommerce, The Brick