One of the major themes at this and last year’s NRF show might be summed up as “the return of the store” — the idea that recent years have seen retail come full circle, from decades of physical stores (and catalogs) only, to several years of beating the e-commerce-only drum (“stores are dead”), to a smart balance across all channels. The omnichannel approach — backed by smart technology and processes that allow for cross-channel inventory visibility, fulfill-from-anywhere, return-to anywhere, etc. — is now considered the ultimate in retailing, because it allows you to serve the customer wherever she wants to shop.
While it is important to offer your customers the opportunity to shop in any channel, it is also important not to take a one-size-fits-all approach to them. It’s a tricky balance. You want to provide a seamless brand experience across channels, but you also need to understand what each channel offers that is different, and why customers choose to shop online at some times and at brick and mortar at others. Some of the reasons are obvious — time savings surely account for many online sales — but some are not.
In an article entitled “The Insourcing Boom” in the December 2012 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Charles Fishman writes about the “just-getting-started return of industry to the United States.” Fishman details a story we’re all familiar with in the apparel industry: where once design and manufacturing took place close together on American shores, today, most of those functions are separated by thousands of miles. We’re also familiar with the reasons for the much-heralded return of some manufacturing to our shores: rising labor costs in Asia, and increased U.S. labor productivity; customers that want more innovative products, faster; the rising cost of oil; political instability in other parts of the world; and less fractious labor unions.
While all of these conditions are driving manufacturing back home, there is yet another, and it may be the most crucial of all. Fishman’s article focuses more specifically on GE, and its reopening of one of its long-shuttered factories in Louisville, Ky. What GE discovered, in short, is that when design and manufacturing first split, designers retain enough knowledge of the manufacturing process to design for it. After all, they’d previously been working hand in hand with manufacturers. Over time, however, an inherent understanding of how things are put together is lost. Technology changes, products change and factories change and designers eventually lose sight entirely of how best to manufacture the products they conceive. Eventually, Fishman writes, “the gap between the people imagining the products and the people making them becomes as wide as the Pacific.”
The separation of design and manufacturing and the loss that accompanies it not only applies to apparel sourcing but I think provides a good analogy to the relationship of the brick-and-mortar store to the customer. While there’s no denying the deep insights we gain into the consumer from online interactions — and vice versa — it’s also true that the online experience, as wonderful as it can be, cannot replicate the experience of being in the store, and experiencing your brand in a physical space. Like listening to Springsteen on your iPod vs. having stage-side tickets, like watching Rick Steves’ travel shows vs. backpacking around Europe, like checking a scorecard vs. walking the factory floor — there is no substitute for being there.
Without a brick-and-mortar presence that engages your customer in a compelling way, you will eventually lose sight of your customer, and they will lose sight of you. It may not happen immediately, but like GE designers who eventually had no clue how difficult it was to put together the dishwashers they designed, your brand will, over time, begin to lose sight of the customer. When there are not salespeople noticing the subtle changes in customer demands, when there are not fabrics and garments to touch and feel, when there is not a live vibe that shouts out your brand personality, it will eventually fade. Intimacy and loyalty will be lost, and customers will shop price, instead of product.
Your brick-and-mortar store is the heart of your omnichannel enterprise. Be sure to give it the love and care it needs to keep beating.