How Not to Fail at Retail

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.”
She took his advice, and bought the couch online. But she didn’t buy it from

It’s no secret that the world of in-person, store-based retail is losing a major portion of its business to online retailing.  This isn’t surprising. 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 – and even thrive – in this new marketplace, it’s important they play to their strengths and not to the strengths of their online competitors.

Let’s start with in-person retailing most important 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, but there are many buying situations where a consumer will appreciate – and be persuaded by – an encounter with another person who is standing right next to them.

A store sales person has the opportunity to engage a customer, learn about them, and customize the dialogue in way that is personally relevant to that customer.  An page may be able to offer a buyer products that are relevant based on past browsing or purchases, but 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, is essentially the world’s biggest, most high-powered vending machine.

Think “with”

Imagine if my friend’s Crate and Barrel sales person 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  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 talk with the owner, Frank Glionna and we collaborate to determine the best course.  Right now I’m in the market for a new amplifier and Frank has been working with me to think through the different options. Yes, I’ve also looked at guitar amplifiers online, but the decision is much harder without Frank’s collaboration.

Think “input before output”

A consumer can search online based on various criteria, but an online site 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 want to accomplish with this new amplifier, he gathered key input before suggesting what the right solution would be. He was now in a position to make recommendations to me that would never be able to make. Could I go buy the amp on Sure, but I’m much less likely to now that Frank has acted like a trusted advisor and helped me with my decision making. He helped me learn more about what was really important to me.

Focus the conversation on personalized benefits

As the store sales person learns about the consumer’s needs and interests, they can do something that the online retailer can do in only the most rudimentary fashion: frame the product’s story in terms of the particular benefits of 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 sales person, Jessica learned so much about Arna’s driving style and her interests 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 Arna would be driving this car to our summer home in Michigan, and about the ease of parking the car in the underground garage where Arna worked. Jessica didn’t just tell Arna about the car, she had a conversation with Arna about what it would be like for Arna to own the car. The Lexus website could never do what Jessica did.

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 they still have the advantage of proximate, meaningful human contact, which, in many situations, is a competitive advantage that can win the love – and loyalty – of customers.

Too bad Crate and Barrel didn’t take advantage of this and earn a place in my friend’s living room.

Here’s something to think about: How can these same principles affect your business if you sell to businesses, instead of consumers?


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