A decade or so ago, many exuberant e-experts were predicting the death of bricks-and-mortar stores due to the rapid emergence of online stores and e-tail. It didn’t happen. Instead the Internet has complimented physical stores and given customers the choice of how and where they shop. The Internet has also fundamentally changed consumer behaviour because it has shifted power in the form of information from the retailer to the customer.
Shoppers are now increasingly well-informed and increasingly impatient thanks to the speed of the Internet and the control it gives them. However, while convenience is important, it’s not the only factor. Customers also like physical stores because they are sensory and in some instances highly personal. As a result, physical stores are investing in the best of both worlds, which means superfast information access and superfast delivery. For example, Bloom Supermarkets in the US (owned by Food Lion) has installed scanning technology that allows customers to scan items as they pick them up, thus allowing them to keep a tab on their final bill, but also speeding up the final checkout. In a similar vein, Circuit City (US) is promising that any item ordered over the Internet will be available in-store within 24 minutes or the customer will get a US$24 gift card to soothe their lack of instant gratification. Interestingly, Circuit City reports that 50% of online orders are now picked up from one of their stores.
Meanwhile, Best-Buy (US) is investing in staff training so that its staff know at least as much about the products they are selling as their customers, many of whom are using cell phones in-store to search the Internet for product information or to compare prices via sites like frucall.com. Bloomingdale’s have gone one step further by installing technology that allows customers to try on clothing in front of an interactive mirror and then email images to their friends for comments and suggestions. A final example of the merger between bricks and clicks is Barnes & Noble. The bookseller is installing kiosks that allow customers to search for obscure and out-of-stock items. So what are the takeaways for retailers here? First, customers want more information and control. Second, they want delivery and payment to speed up, and third, they want more service. The latter obviously clashes with the need for low prices but the modern customer is nothing if not demanding and contradictory.