How Brick and Mortar Retail Has to Change

I don’t think brick and mortar is going away.  I doubt many of you think it is either.  I do believe that consolidation and transformation of the space has a way to go and I further believe it will reach its climax when (not if) the next recession hits.  I know this sounds kind of unfeeling, but I’d sort of like to get that recession going and out of the way.  The longer it’s delayed the worse it will be.

It won’t be just a recession that leads to this continuing transformation and consolidation.  The continued growth of ecommerce, retailers resisting change, and slower long-term GDP growth will also play their parts.

But you, as a retailer, don’t want to be consolidated (well, maybe at the right price) and you don’t want to go out of business.  Knowing that, I’ve been evaluating the role of a brick and mortar store these days compared to what it used to be.

What Stores Are Not Doing as Much Of

Let’s remind ourselves of the traditional functions stores helped customers perform.

  1. Finding the product
  2. Discovering the price
  3. Understanding the features
  4. Learning how it performs
  5. Figuring out if others like it and why
  6. Buying the product

That’s quite a list.  Some of your customers will continue to need (or want) your store(s) to perform some of these six functions some of the time.  But not most of your customers all of the time as used to be the case.

If that isn’t a kick in the pants alerting you to the need to change your business (and financial!) model, I don’t know what is.  What changes?

What You Have to Do More Of

In the last few months, I’ve developed in my head a model of what I think retail is evolving to.  I’m certain it’s incomplete and wrong in some way given the continuous change.  I’m laying it out here anyway because (1) Even though some of it is known, I want to draw it together, (2) writing about it helps me think deeper, (3) I’d like you to tell me where you think I’m wrong and (4) there is urgency for every retailer to have a vision and act on it regardless of the uncertainty.

I think most of this applies to brands as well, as retailers are brands and brands are retailers.  Anyway, here’s my shot at it.  There is a certain advantage to being a large retailer right now, but this all generally applies to one store or one thousand.

First, your brick and mortar and online has to be completed integrated.  You have to see your business as having one customer, no matter how they buy, and one revenue stream.  The customer has to be able to view and buy the same product at the same price in the store or online on any device.  You should be agnostic in terms of where and how a product is sold and delivered.

You do that by making your stores as responsible as they can be for handling the online, as well as the in store, customer relationship.  Which, and I hope I don’t have to point this out, is really one relationship.  Don’t argue with me about that- argue with your customer.

If you’re one store, that’s not as much of an issue.  As the number of stores grow, the opportunity to move ecommerce expenses into the stores can result in saving a bunch of money.  The more stores, the more money you can save.

The savings happen for two reasons.  First, you’re going to cut some expenses.  Maybe in labor or facilities.  You are going to use the assets you have more efficiently.  The public retailers call this “leveraging” their fixed costs- spreading the same costs over a larger revenue base.

Second, you’re going to cut off any dysfunctional competition between ecommerce and brick and mortar.  Why might that competition exist in the first place? What, for example, if you have people who receive a bonus based, in one case, on brick and mortar sales and, on the other, on ecommerce sales?  I can pretty much guarantee they won’t be focused on maximizing companywide revenue.

The next thing you have to do more of, based on the integration of brick and mortar and ecommerce, is evolve your stores.  This is an example of where we find ourselves in the uncomfortable place of needing to change, not quite knowing how, but having to start anyway.  The integration of brick and mortar and ecommerce I’m describing means the role, functionality, and layout of stores will change.  As you work to minimize your inventory (I’ll get to that) and give store personnel the overall customer relationship, how big do stores have to be?  What inventory will they carry (as you can seamlessly draw on inventory across your whole system and probably on what your non-owned brands have in inventory as well)?

If you have a lot of stores, how might the role of your district managers change?  Will the growth of ecommerce mean you can get by with fewer stores in a given region?  What will a store’s layout and space requirements look like if it’s carrying some of the inventory that was previously held in some distribution center?  Will you need less square feet as customers order t-shirts online and they are automatically printed in the back room?

Would that t-shirt sale be a store or an ecommerce sale?  Doesn’t matter does it.  That’s why you have to see your stores as having just one revenue stream.

Okay, I said something about minimizing inventory.  The quality and immediacy of your data has to get better.  There are so many reasons that’s important, but right now I want to focus on its inventory impact.

Snowboarding used to be the industry poster child for inventory disasters.  One season and snow dependent.  It used to be common to end a season with enough close out product to wipe out the profit for the whole season.  Most of you have figured that out and adjusted your buys accordingly.  Better to mourn lost sales than product you have to slash the price on.

My suggestion is that you treat all your inventory like it was snowboarding product.

You’re in (and will continue to be) a market where product life cycles and trends don’t seem to last long.  We’re an industry where product is differentiated mostly by marketing and community judgment rather than features and new brands come (and go) with the speed of light.  Time to embrace that- since your customers are.

It’s been years since I started advocating for retailers to take risks with new brands.  It’s not now just urgent- it’s unavoidable.  It’s also been years-more than 10-since I suggested being prepared to give up some revenue, or at least some revenue growth, in favor of higher margins and lower operating expenses for a better bottom line.

Both are related to the quality of data and inventory.  Your plan for identifying new brands/product may be disciplined and rigorous or, for smaller retailers and brand, just a matter of keeping your ear to the ground and developing a culture where employees are aware of products and trends.

If new brands are important (both bringing them in and knowing when to dump them), if product differentiation is tough and based to some extent on scarcity/distribution, if trends are short and dynamic,  if you think getting stuck with merchandise you have to mark down sucks, if something not selling in one place might sell in another, and if you have another use for cash besides sitting in inventory then knowing exactly what is selling where, to whom and  how quickly matters a lot.

Yeah, I know- you already have inventory reports and gross margin reports and various other reports.  How often do you get them?  Do they provide the data you need to address the issues I’ve raised in the paragraph directly above?  Is the level of detail adequate?  Set goals you can measure that improve on the issues listed above.  Some retailers are installing systems with algorithms that are parsing customer as well as inventory and sales data to gain new insights.  What new insights? They don’t quite know yet.

Over the next couple of years this software will become available to everybody at a reasonable cost.

Let’s take a short break while I point you to a couple of related articles.  I haven’t used the term “social media” yet but obviously it’s impact on the changes in retail is important.  Here’s a link to an article from my research department on a social media influencer with 1.2 million followers.  “She” is a bot.  I have no idea where to go with that.  It’s just another example of the complexity we’re dealing with.

On the subject of distribution and brand building, read this about specialty brands doing limited edition, lower priced collaborations with Target.  Is this the way to expand your sales and build your brand, or destroy it? I tend towards the later.  What do you think?

Okay, breaks over.

What Retailers are Doing More Of

  1. Customer service
  2. Community building

Neither of those sound particularly new.  But if you’ve read this far, you know I’m suggesting you have to do what you did before in the way of customer service (though less of it for some customers) plus satisfy with new brands, experiences, surprises, and engagement.  And all this for a customer who wants endless newness.  No wonder I’m trying to get you to increase efficiency, improve inventory management, and cut costs.  One issue I need to give some more thought to is how, specifically, the role of a brick and mortar sales person changes given the integration with ecommerce.

Most industry retailers would say they’ve always been community builders.  I think that’s true.  Especially for smaller retailers, that community’s reach was defined by a limited geographic space around stores.  Now your community isn’t so easily defined. Your reach, through the internet, is “everybody.”  One thing hasn’t changed- if you think everybody is your customer, probably nobody is.

The word that’s popping up a lot more in defining your target customer is “culture.” Culture, in the context we’re talking about it, refers to commonalities among your customers.  It’s easy to say, for example, “We’re a skate retailer/brand.”  That’s a fine thing to do as long as you recognize that positioning yourself that way limits your growth because you’ve defined your target market.  I don’t have to remind you of all the companies that started with their roots in an activity, tried to expand outside their solid franchise in that activity, and did themselves a lot of damage.

Trying to figure out the culture of your target customers is a lot harder than saying “We’re a skate company” and defining your universe of potential customers that way.    Fortunately, you’ve got a lot more data on customers than you used to have, and they are busily telling the world what they like and don’t like and why.  That brings us right back to the importance of systems that allow you to parse all this data to provide insights on the culture of your customers.  You can always be a “skate” retailer/brand and perhaps draw comfort with that solid, if maybe over simplified, characterization of your customer and target market.  If you’re culture focused, you have to be plugged in enough to change as that culture changes.

I wish I had the space to be more specific, but this has already run longer than I like and, in any event, generalities are inevitable when I’m discussing industry wide issues.  I’m not asking for much am I?  I just want you to change most aspects of your business, integrate the pieces in a way that didn’t used to be necessary, and do it fast and continually-as your customer is requiring-while what you need to do is changing and isn’t completely obvious in the first place.

It’s not me asking.  It’s your customer requiring.

12 replies
  1. Kel
    Kel says:

    Great read Jeff. The retail renaissance is happening. From what I see older retailers who aren’t willing to invest in their stores and seek a happy place in constant change are withering on the vine. Culture is build on experiences with brands or stores. If the experience isn’t thought through and developed then……

    Whilst it looks horrific in the numbers, I think it is an exciting time. The goal seems to be get it right for about 5 minutes before things change again.

  2. Dave Seehafer
    Dave Seehafer says:

    Aloha Jeff,

    Spot-on, as usual! There’s plenty of opportunities for retailers out there, but the mindset has to change, be fast & nimble, while looking for newness and freshness at all times. Just read the latest update on the new Nike Live retail concept–ties into a lot of what you’ve mentioned!

    • jeff
      jeff says:

      Thanks Dave. The other thing to focus on, and I’ll be writing about it eventually, is that supply has exceeded demand for various economic reasons not unique to our industry and will probably continue to do so. Hard to grow or raise prices with a bunch of tough to differentiate products under those circumstances.

  3. jared stivers
    jared stivers says:

    Interesting take on what’s required at the store level, I completely agree and have seen it work from the opposite side, e-commerce to brick and mortar. I’m at ModCloth, a digitally native vintage/retro inspired women’s brand celebrating our 16th birthday this summer. For 15 of ModCloth’s 16 years we had no brick and mortar at all, a year ago we opened our first “fit shop” in Austin, last month San Francisco and coming this Sept is Washington DC with more in the works.

    One huge difference is we don’t hold any inventory other than floor samples in full size runs. Customers try on what they like and the product is mailed from a central facility that traditionally only supported the digital business. While we do expect to have some regional differences in what a future store in LA would carry vs DC simply because of the weather, the vast majority of planning and buying is done for ModCloth as a brand which makes inventory planning easier.

    For a digital brand a brick and mortar location does two big things 1. customers can actually see, touch, feel and try on the clothes and 2. it’s a big customer acquisition billboard for ModCloth. But one thing I think you really got right is how to activate influencers in the community, at a local level, to make that physical location profitable.

    ModCloth is a love brand and as a lifelong surfer I’ve continually been struck by the similarities between ModCloth and the action sports brands I grew up with. I’m glad I found my way to your column, we’ve got plenty to learn and a short runway 🙂
    – Jared

    • jeff
      jeff says:

      Hi Jared,
      Love that the brand is 16 years old without a retail store. Are you saying that all your sales since you started have been online before this June? What you’ve opened is obviously not a traditional retail store. I like the term “fit shop” a lot, and love that you’ve got almost no inventory. In addition to sizes, does the “store” feature a full run of patterns and colors? I am especially curious about two things. First, what kind of information are you collecting from the people who come in the shop, what are you learning, and how are you using it? Perhaps too soon to tell. Second, what kind of customization are you or do you think you can offer? Love to know more about your manufacturing situation.

      Thanks for the comment,

  4. jared stivers
    jared stivers says:

    Hi Jeff,

    The Austin fit shop opened November 2016 and for about a year before that we had a ‘pop-up’ shop around the country that helped to test markets and refine how a permanent store would ultimately work/look/feel. But basically yes, all sales were online until very recently. The brand grew out of the founders dorm room and found a fashion POV and values of inclusivity that at the time was a vastly untapped market.

    The store’s physical footprints are simply too small to show the entire assortment so we don’t show a full run of patterns and colors but rather the collection and category highlights plus non-apparel and a bit of truly vintage locally sourced products. A good example of this model in men’s is Bonobos, they’ve got a hundred or so stores and if there’s one near you it’s a great way to see from the customer perspective.

    As far as collecting customer data we could do better. Thanks to Amazon our customer expects us to know her wherever and whenever she shows up. And while there’s the basic account information and order history, unless she specifically adds her sizes to her account online (our app has great features around fit) we don’t systematically progressively profile at the store. That said we do support the stores in brand marketing such as email or a catalog where we insert dynamic content for a DMA that has a store. The stores also do their own clienteling whereby, similar to Nordstroms, the shop itself is cultivating a personal relationship, getting to know customers people to people rather than data to people.

    And funny you should ask about manufacturing as we just had an internal overview, happy to share what I can. I’ll connect with you over email.



    • jeff
      jeff says:

      I suppose one reason you can succeed with a nontraditional store with limited inventory is because your customers are used to buying the brand online. Who are the store customers? Are they new to the brand or mostly existing online customers? Existing customers aren’t going to care that you have limited store inventory, as they are already used to buying from you online. What’s the process your sales people typically go through with new customers in the store who are used to seeing a bigger selection? You ought to have a giant screen on the wall showing the web site.

      I wonder if there’s any possible downside to an internet brand opening stores. I don’t know the answer to that and think probably not- I’m just thinking out loud.


  5. jared stivers
    jared stivers says:

    It’s interesting that even for current customers who are used to buying from ModCloth online the in-store experience is still an adjustment that doesn’t always go smoothly (you can see it in the yelp reviews) but overall they’re willing to try it. We’ve also seen fans of the brand are excited to see ModCloth IRL (in real life) and willing to drive a considerable distance.

    One thing I’d like to know more about is someone who has never heard of ModCloth, browses a store and then later visits us online. That’s awareness that digital has trouble spending into. Overall I think most of the foot traffic is new to the brand and the #1 thing I hope they walk away with is an understanding of why ModCloth exists. Everyone has a computer in their purse/pocket (we make dresses with pockets) and can see the breadth of the assortment but that doesn’t necessarily communicate why she should seriously consider shopping with us. Amazon already has a copy of every brand’s assortment so why would I pay a premium for Rip Curl’s Boardwalk khaki shorts?

    Because my girlfriend had never been to Trestles before and on the way to introducing her to Pedro’s Taco’s I wanted to but some new shorts and get some wax, complete an experience. An experience where the actual transaction with Rip Curl had everything to do about the brand, the retail location, ‘the search’. So much so that me, a guy who works in fashion, forked over full price for a pair of shorts and a new hoodie for her.

    It’s not that ModCloth’s stores don’t have to be profitable, it’s that in addition they help round out ‘Why’ ModCloth is in her life in a more complete way.

    • jeff
      jeff says:

      What I’m wondering, after your comments above, is how this is helping the brand. Maybe if I saw the store and the whole presentation of the brand it would make more sense to me. But if it’s an adjustment for too many of your existing customers, and the new customers can’t get a complete sense of the product, where’s the value? I really liked your web site (though I’m hardly the target customer) and I’m hoping your translate that feeling to the store even without much inventory.

  6. jared stivers
    jared stivers says:

    To restate I believe you are asking, ‘If ModCloth’s unique in-store model (she can’t walk out with the product, it’s mailed to her) adds friction to the shopping experience for some customers, how do the stores help the brand?’

    Jeff that is a great question, and like most good questions the answer is nuanced with some straight up ‘we don’t know this is a guess’.

    To begin with, in ‘helping the brand’ what are we solving for? When we survey customers and ask, ‘What defines a successful transaction with ModCloth?’ the #1 answer every time is ‘the clothes fit’. Fit contributes to wearing the item often which has a huge impact on the perceived price/value equation.
    (tangent alert: I got this $60 plain white Lululemon T-shirt. I never would have spent that kinda money on plain T. But it’s so comfortable, fits so well AND I took it on not one but TWO Indo surf trips over the years and still wear that same exact shirt. $60 when amortized is looking like I got a great deal. It made me buy more of their T’s and actually more of the mens line. /tangent)
    So my first answer is: We call the stores ‘FitShops’ not stores because we are solving for fit not orders. Among the majority of customers who are ok with not walking out with their items, knowing what she bought will fit her drives incremental repeat purchase as she’s having ‘successful transactions’ with ModCloth. Therefore we think solving for fit first will have the added consequence of solving for orders.

    The next part is more of a guess. ModCloth’s strategic priority is to foster a community focused on empowering individual expression, this includes activating our community and creating brand ambassadors among our customers. To that end the stores host events like bridal showers and birthday parties whereby we can foster those informal ambassadors and create new ones.

    Both of those examples include a transaction but are much larger than the simple commerce. We’re hoping these, among other initiatives we haven’t thought of yet, can help the brand despite the inevitable friction of the shopping model. And seeing is believing, as someone who’s been dragged into many a women’s clothing store against my will, and sure I’m a little biased, I was seriously wowed when I visited our new SF store recently.

    • jeff
      jeff says:

      Congratulations on saying “We don’t know this is a guess.” Acknowledging ignorance is always the beginning of figuring it out. Especially these days.

      I think the focus on fit is highly valuable and differentiating. Anybody else doing it in quite the same way? Are there/will there be software tools to be deployed on the web site to help with fit?

      If you can demonstrate that the stores build and community and create ambassadors, I’d even be fine if they didn’t make much money.

      I’m happy to say I not longer get dragged into women’s clothing stores because my wife has figured out it’s a downer to have me around.

      Thanks for the thoughtful explanation.

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