Let’s Get Physical

Why is e-commerce rebuilding the brick-and-mortar store? 

In a time when there is a new disruptive technology almost every week and Oxford Dictionary’s Word
 of the Year is an emoji, some retailers are harking back to old habits and returning to an offline, analog way of selling – the brick-and-mortar store. Major corporations, including Amazon, Warby Parker, and Frank and Oak among many others, are turning to the traditional terrain of yesteryear to sell through to the consumer of tomorrow.

So why would these digital wunderkinds forgo their low-cost advantage for the capital-intensive confines of the physical shop? Answers aren’t hard to find.

Among the many listed, a quick Google search will grant you answers such as: “big data,” “groundfloor market research,” and “a more holistic customer experience.” All are valid points; ones both agreeable and cemented by fact. However, while C-suite philosophers and marketing mavens can mull over the business implications of such a move, we prefer to look at this topic through the more psychoanalytical lens of abundance.

As noted by Warby Parker co-CEO Neil Blumenthal
 (no relation to author), the spectacle company’s reasoning for their diversification is to become “medium agnostic”: a strategy they implemented to hedge against the uncertain future of retail spending. While Millennials once flocked with cybernetic shopping carts to the aisles of e-commerce, Blumenthal admits that the coming years will be unpredictable, with customers becoming increasingly enigmatic in their consumption habits.

Consumer volatility is inherent; and abundance plays a fundamental role in its growth.

In his book A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Change The Future, author Daniel Pink speaks to abundance as it pertains to a marketplace inundated with too many like-minded offerings. Scarcity is nonexistent, and it drives businesses to add perceptual benefits to their products 
in order to create distinction. But abundance has gone beyond the threshold of Ford Model-T’s and low-sodium soup brands, and has permeated our everyday existence through the ill-effects of abundant choice.

Whether it’s the posts we read on social media, or which four-star taco joints we frequent for lunch posted on Yelp, consumption has become a primarily self-curated task – and one Millennials continue to grow weary of. A golden era of globalized access to information and goods has led to a renaissance of simplicity. More than ever before, consumers are throwing caution to the wind to exchange options for solutions.

Take the rise of Bar Roulette, noir cafes, and surprise subscription services, for example. In each, uncertainty becomes the centerpiece of the experience itself. For Bar Roulette, the user leaves their evening in the hands of an advanced algorithm, one that uses Yelp reviews and Uber to secretly determine how they’ll spend their night out.
 For noir cafes, it’s the customers who choose the red, green, or blue options and blindly eat what’s given to them.

Or how about Blue Apron’s increasing ownership of the American pantry? The food subscription service goes beyond just delivering fresh produce; it provides families easy-to-follow recipes for every night of the week. With each taking minimal time to prepare, the food curation company unburdens parents from the predetermination, procurement, and extensive preparation required to feed their family a time-and health-conscious meal. What

was once a smorgasbord of options has become a Roman holiday of over-indulgence and choice; we have such
 an abundance of choice that we actively ask for alleviation.

To some degree, the retail experience offers restriction; stores refine an abundant array of product offerings 
into those most acutely relevant to the given moment and predetermined consumer. From their mega-bunkers of big data, e-commerce giants creep the most ordered items and place them within retail proximity. This back-end brainwork bakes parameters into the shopping experience, allowing users to focus on the functional needs of a product as opposed to the 23 cents saved by signing up for another site’s “exclusive” offer and using an introductory coupon.

And can you blame consumers? Psychologists and data scientists alike have noted the ill-effects of abundant access – see: Addicted to Distraction by Tony Schwartz or Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. Gladwell aptly alludes to the tyranny of abundance when he notes that experts across a variety of disciplines make better decisions through instinctive judgments rather than performing large-scale data dissection akin to an intellectual tracheotomy.

When we do finally make a decision, it’s often fraught with insecurity. “Analysis paralysis,” as the ludologist would say, ensues. Now, that’s a problem; not just for the consumer, but for the business itself.

Indecision breeds cost – returns, shipping fees, overhead, even opportunity cost. Some chains even go as far as to centralize their offering around this cost reduction. Bonobos, the online men’s apparel company, uses their retail stores just as an exercise in proper fitting. Customers come to find the right size and leave the store “hands free.”

This indecision isn’t only attributed to abundance though; it’s a symptom of modern work. Back in the early 1900s, piecework was the predominate means of employment. Make the part, attached it to another part, sell the car. A beginning, a middle, and an end; all knew when the job was done. Jump 70 years or so, and you have what Peter Drucker coined as “knowledge work”; unrestricted labor where the end product is a determinant on the individual themselves.

How can you know which is the “right” ad to run? How do you know this is the “best” software to purchase? How
 do you know which is the “proper” way to train employees?

This absence of a defined line, coupled with over-abundance, becomes catalytic to consumer indecisiveness. As such, it’s really no wonder that e-commerce is flocking
 to retail as a means of offline salesmanship. Brick-and-mortar offers the prescriptive medicine to not only liberate the shopping experience, but to re-inspire it.

Consumers can kinesthetically browse a tailored selection of two-breasted blazers – rather than the infinite reaches of e-space – and make an informed decision. And not only that, they can peruse the highly-curated store for additional offerings they they might enjoy; not just ones dictated to them by a complex algorithm.

Retail can strike a balance between the beliefs of the internet and the faces of modern consumerism; they have the ability to offer choice, while allowing consumers to choose for themselves. By doing so, a new wave of online-dwindling Millennials can be addressed – or at least prepared for, as foresight becomes a foundational principle for the future of retail.

the author

John Wither

John Wither is a creative strategist and writer at Idea Couture. He is based in Toronto, Canada.

the author

Mira Blumenthal

Mira Blumenthal is lead editor, communications at MISC.