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The [d]evolution of the Digital Store: A Return to Brick and Mortar

The growth of online retail does not mean brick and mortar retail outlets are obsolete.

In-store and online retail seem to have a tenuous physical relationship with each other. Many companies that have a very strong Web presence seem to have weaker store presences or none at all. Some great stores lack a good Web presence or have none at all. Is there a way to pull these two channels together?

A recent trend that has caught my attention, though it seems somewhat underutilized, is the Web retailer or social Web group venturing into a brick and mortar presence. For example, Piperlime has announced plans to open their first physical store to display and merchandise their product. Etsy is raising money for a yet-to-be-defined venture that would expand the services the Web market provides to its sellers and buyers. Even Amazon seems keen to jump into luxury retail, but how comfortable will someone be ordering an $800 suit based on a Web-view only, especially when luxury has long been based on attention to craftsmanship/detail, history, rarity and personal service? Would services like Gilt.com or others make much of a dent if they had a brick-and-mortar location where members could see their purchases in person before confirming that purchase?

I attended a Gilt sale in San Francisco recently and the place was packed. Not only that, but it seemed that the average person was walking out the door after spending hundreds of dollars on products that could easily have been bought from the Website. I feel that the consumer has grown fond of the ease and convenience with which they can order and have items delivered to their home. But it is precisely these hermitic habits that may be causing a pendulum reaction and desire to visit a real store to see the real product in person for a more meaningful purchase. After all, you did need to get dressed in order to leave your computer world to visit a retail location for said purchase.

Why not take advantage of this recent trend back to physical place and interaction and combine it with the most favorite digital pastime of all: social networking. Imagine a store where “content” was generated by members–similar to the way the permanent but rotating pop-up shop, Story, is curated–and open to the general public for browsing and purchase. Members would be treated as VIP customers when they come to the store as incentive to participate in the experiment, having items selected for them or by them and assembled as collections before arrival. I know I would be curious as to why a person next to me at the shop was getting all sorts of preferential treatment and high-value customer service. Heck, I would join right then and there if I knew I would have a say in the products displayed and could feel like a high-roller when I visit. To think that I’ve undertaken the effort to get out of my digital world and visit the store may seem so 2000, but paired with the engagement amongst my online empire, ahem…social circle, and the experience of individualized customer service would definitely be an added bonus and incentive for membership.

The store could even run the practice of stocking one item for each size, make, color, type, etc. If you purchase an item it would be handled through the website and shipped to you, reducing operational burdens at the actual location as well as avoiding the annoyance of carrying a bag. Would a company with the backing and inventory of say, Amazon or Etsy, be interested in the street cred of their products being ranked by the popular trending of their customers? Could different regions or cities offer enough of a customer base to support the model? I say yes. The effort that goes into creating great online presence and success is similar to the reality of managing a physical presence in the marketplace.

As companies like Piperlime voyage into selling their wares in the flesh, they need to remember what has allowed them to achieve success by selling through a screen. If online retailers can create physical spaces that make users feel as involved in the creation of content as they are online, they can resolve the tenuous relationship between the online world and the physical one.

Ryan Fetters is an Associate and designer in the San Francisco office. He has been with Gensler for 5+ years and has been involved in a range of projects from a historic building addition at the UC Berkeley campus to multiple retail and hospitality ventures. Ryan is fascinated with how people engage with a space and technology to enhance and improve their experience therein. Strategizing and conceptualizing how customers will interact with a new design makes his day and he strives to keep up with the most recent trends and opportunities within the design world. Contact him at ryan_fetters@gensler.com.

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Reader Comments (1)

Thanks for the great article! I see Everlane as a company that is playing within the space between the physical and the digital. Exclusively online operation is a crucial part of their business plan and the founder of Everlane has stated that the company will shut down before moving to physical retail. But recently they launched a pop up shop in NYC called "not a shop" where customers where able to touch and try on the merchandise (but not actually buy it). It allowed the company to hang on to its core values while having a temporary physical connection to its customers!
07.13.2012 | Unregistered CommenterTreanndis Hurst

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