A friend of mine recently went to Crate and Barrel to buy a couch. The store didn’t stock the color she wanted, so the sales clerk said, “You can just go buy it online.” And she took his advice. She bought the couch online. But she didn’t buy it from crateandbarrel.com.
Retail’s Competitive Advantage
It’s no secret that the world of in-person, store-based retail is losing a major portion of its business to online retailing. Any store can lose business when competitive stores open up, especially when those competitors offer advantages it can’t offer, such as breadth of selection, price, and convenience.
But online retailing doesn’t hold all of the advantages. If brick and mortar retailers want to survive in our modern marketplace, they have to play to their strengths.
Let’s start with in-person retailing most important (and obvious) competitive advantage: it’s in person. As knowledgeable, deep and thorough as an online retail site may be, it can’t offer face-to-face, in-the-moment, personalized dialogue. Sure, that in-person interaction isn’t important in every buying situation, such as buying AA batteries. However, there are many buying situations in which a consumer will appreciate – and be persuaded by – an encounter with another person who is standing right next to them.
An in-store salesperson has the opportunity to engage a customer, learn about them, and customize the dialogue in a way that is personally relevant to that customer. An amazon.com page may be able to offer a buyer products that are relevant based on past browsing history or purchases, but amazon.com is unable to help the customer form a nuanced, personalized, meaningful story about how a certain product is a great choice for them. As amazing as it is, amazon.com is essentially the world’s biggest, most high-powered vending machine.
3 Ways to Succeed in Retail
Think About: Partnership & Collaboration
Imagine if my friend’s Crate and Barrel salesperson had walked with her to a computer and ordered the product with her. What if he had collaborated with her to find the perfect couch on crateandbarrel.com? How different would she feel about Crate and Barrel today?
This is the first element that can distinguish an in-person store experience: the feeling that a real person is working with you to accomplish what you are trying to accomplish.
I enjoy buying guitars and musical equipment at the Music Gallery in Highland Park, IL. When I’m considering something new, I always talk with the owner, Frank, and we collaborate to determine the best course. When I was in the market for a new amplifier, Frank worked with me to think through the different options. Yes, of course, I also looked at guitar amplifiers online, but I wouldn’t have made the decision without Frank’s expertise and personalized service.
Think About: Input Before Output
We all know how online shopping works: a customer can search for products based on various criteria. But an online store isn’t very good at asking probing questions to find out what a consumer really cares about.
As Frank asked me questions about what I wanted to accomplish with this new amplifier, he gathered key information before suggesting what the right solution would be. He put himself in a position to make recommendations to me that guitarcenter.com would never be able to make. And he helped me learn more about what was really important to me.
Could I have bought the amp on guitarcenter.com? Sure. But now that Frank has acted like a trusted advisor and helped me with my decision making, I’m much less likely to close the deal online. And truthfully, the only place I even considered making the purchase was in-person, with Frank.
Think About: Conversation & Personalization
As an in-store salesperson learns about a consumer’s needs and interests, they can do something that an online retailer can do in only the most rudimentary fashion: frame the product’s story in terms of the particular benefits to this individual customer.
An online product listing can tell of generic benefits, such as “gets your teeth their whitest” or “saves you $432 per year in energy costs.” An in-person retail experience can do so much more.
When shopping for her last car, my wife, Arna, visited a number of different dealerships and saw various makes and models of cars. At one Lexus dealership the salesperson, Jessica, learned so much about Arna’s driving style and what she was looking for in a car, that she was able to describe the Lexus hybrid in ways that were about Arna, not just about the car.
Jessica and Arna were talking about how comfortable she would be driving this car to our summer home in Michigan, and about the ease of parking the car in the underground garage where she worked. Jessica didn’t just tell Arna about the car, she had a conversation with her about what it would be like for Arna to own the car. The Lexus website could never have done what Jessica did.
Meaningful Connection Develops Customer Commitment
Brick and mortar retailers have lost many of the advantages they once had, including providing better access to products and the convenience of “location, location, location.” But in-person retailers still have the advantage of proximate, meaningful human contact to that allows them to better listen to customers, collaborate with them and personalize their purchase experience.
It’s too bad Crate and Barrel didn’t take advantage of this and earn a place in my friend’s living room. The ability to meaningfully connect with your customers is a competitive advantage that can help you earn a substantial share of their love, loyalty, and purchases and develop customer commitment.