Retailers May Be Neglecting Their Strongest Competitive Advantage
Digital technology has transformed our industry – some might say disrupted it – along with just about everything else in contemporary life. Retailers, over the last few years, have risen to the challenge of their online competitors with major investments in omnichannel. But have all those dollars poured into online come at the expense of the retailer’s biggest asset: the bricks-and-mortar store? This provocative question was recently raised by Antony Karabus, CEO of Hilco Retail Consulting, in a recent article in Women’s Wear Daily. He gave us cause for some thought.
Investing in Bricks: Is a Retail Real Estate Trend Emerging?
Karabus maintains that bricks-and-mortar retailers “consistently underestimate the enormous advantage they have relative to their ecommerce counterparts, in particular their physical brand assets.” A bricks-and-mortar store, he goes on to say, satisfies the consumer’s innate desire to interact with merchandise in an inviting environment. Yet, according to a survey of the CEOs and CFOs of top retailers conducted by Hilco, only 20 percent are investing capital in their stores. Forty percent of the stores in Hilco’s study, in fact, had not been remodeled in a decade.
The vast majority of retail sales still occur in stores rather than online. The most recent statistics from the U.S. Commerce Department show online sales accounting for 6.8 percent of total third-quarter retail sales. Online is growing at a steady pace, but Forrester Research projects that by 2018, it will still represent only 11 percent of total annual sales. Still, leading retailers remain fixated on tech – perhaps at the expense of their physical brand, which is the chief driver of revenue.
An Experience Technology Can’t Match…Yet
Steve Barr, U.S. Retail and Consumer Leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers, echoes Karabus’ views on the overlooked value of bricks. “There are reasons people are still going to the store – it’s accessible, people can see and feel the product, try on merchandise, see what a room set looks like. It’s a very visual experience that can’t be replicated through even the best online tools,” he told Retail Dive earlier this year. He added this caveat: “Retailers are going to need to adapt the physical store to stay relevant and compete with online retailers.”
Levin’s President Matthew Harding agrees that while a strong online presence is vital, retailers can’t afford to ignore their physical stores. “As a leading retail real estate company, we’re naturally concerned about the physical appearances of the tenants in the centers we manage. The look of a store is a valid concern for any retailer. Many of ours are doing an outstanding job. A good example is ShopRite. They’ve created high-quality environments for grocery buyers. Pier 1 Imports is another good example. I’ve seen some great interior and exterior remodeling of their stores. They’re driving more traffic because of their fresh, new look. Shoppers are drawn to novelty.”
Retailers Who Find the Right Balance Will Own the Future
Bricks and clicks need to be brought into balance, according to Karabus, who insists that success will come from serving customers “consistently at all touch points (online and in-store) however and whenever they want to interact with a retailer.” Bring stores up to meet the expectation of today’s savvy consumers, he urges. Merchants who do so will reap dividends. “The prize,” he predicts, “will be huge when retailers find the right balance of capital spending.”