“Why can’t you be more like your big sister?”

Does this approach ever work?  Not very often.  What such a comparison can do is produce a sibling that spends years trying to be someone he’s not, losing ground, rather than trying to identify and build up his own assets.

I am beginning to have this same sensation when I read articles heralding the arrival of the latest new Web or mobile retail phenomenon, a new daily deals site, or a site where you can subscribe to your own mix of coffee or underwear.  These are all wonderful, but must digital advancements mean a fast death knell for brick and mortar stores?


It certainly hasn’t in banking.  When I was at Chase in the mid-90s, many believed that online banking would spell a fast death for branches.  Profitable customers wouldn’t have the time or inclination to use branches and that all the “good” business would move online.  Branches would be left to old ladies with passbooks. The first was new and good; the latter, old and tired.

What happened was very different, and banks that neglected their branch networks – letting the locations get old and crummy – ultimately had to scramble to restore their luster or lose business.

It seems to me that the same thing is happening in retail:  many stores have decided that they are “less than,” that they’ll never again be any good, and that they should focus on the hopeless task of trying to be more like the Web.

Now don’t get me wrong:  there are advantages to making stores more “Web-like” – Pacific Sunwear gives salespeople iPads so they can create outfits for shoppers and order out-of-stock items fast, and Brookstone is using tablets to demonstrate robots that can be controlled by an app and (soon) to deliver remote checkout.  Ron Boire, Brookstone’s CEO, is moving quickly on these initiatives because he’s concerned that “improvements in e-commerce will accelerate consumers’ migrations to the Web.”

But at a more strategic level, merchants that singularly obsess about being more like their Web siblings will fail – while they simultaneously stop investing in labor and let stores go downhill. Good luck with that.

No, if bricks & mortar is going to thrive (or at least exist for awhile), it’s got to get its own mojo back.  That’s right: stores need to go out there and kick some Internet a*[email protected]&.

I mean, come on:  if rolling over and playing dead is not an option, let’s get excited.   Let’s roll around in it.   Who are your real customers?  When was the last time you actually listened to any of them?  What experiences can a physical location deliver that either cannot exist or are “less than” online?

Apple has certainly delivered a new world version of retail magic.  Its stores command the highest revenue per square foot in retail, and it’s about to open its largest location in the world in New York.

While folks claim that no other retailer could do what Apple has done (whine, whine), Ron Johnson says it’s the basics of experience that made the biggest difference.  In Apple’s case, one of the key elements of this experience is that salespeople don’t work on commission, so they can honestly recommend the best solution for a consumer and build a relationship – not a one-off sale that may leave a shopper unhappy.  Johnson urges all bricks & mortar entities need to “start from scratch and figure out how to create fundamentally new types of value for customers.”  He openly states that the specific ways he plans to do that at JCPenney may be different than Apple, but the principle of uniquely “enriching customers’ lives” will remain the same.  Here are some tiny examples of brick & mortar stores actively searching for Web proof transcendental moments:

  • Best Buy is now in the chilling position of having to watch shoppers check prices on their smartphones while standing in the aisles.  The question is, what are they going to do about it?  How can the chain deliver a sense of intimacy and comfort that will always be missing online?  Can it boost its angels-devils strategy to increase the the likelihood of getting the “right” shoppers in the door?  Are there benefits that might only exist in store, like a richer version of the buy back program?  How about incentives to wander?
  • Also in a high price, high anxiety category, Foot Locker is applying an “intimacy” tactic at the door.  A shopper accosted by a “How may I help you?” may mumble something and end up standing in front of a display not knowing what to do.  Having associates ask “What kind of shoe are you looking for?” has been a subtle change but one the company’s CEO says is “more likely to start a conversation” and result in a sale and increased loyalty.
  • Old Navy’s target is moms in their thirties.  The chain made the aisles wider, which is nice, but its new stores have “quick change pods” (or changing rooms) in the center and spread out for easy try-ons.  That’s awesome.
  • Nordstrom groups merchandise together so shoppers can see and try on whole outfits (which they do).  Try that online.

These are all small steps in the right direction and the bottom line is that there is no single solution:  finding key consumer moments of truth takes a commitment to truly observing the shopper’s life and transforming the resulting insights into powerful moments of delight.  The Web’s a killer, but it is not an option to put your head down and surrender.  Sometimes, nothing beats a personal touch:  stores need to go back to their roots and reinvent this crucial advantage for contemporary times.