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Red carpet retail

To stem the tide of online shopping, traditional retailers are inviting customers to come in, put their feet up—and leave the credit cards at home

Author Boyd Farrow Illustration Pui Yan Fong

industry

Not long ago, conventional wisdom had it that online shopping would soon consign vast swaths of traditional retail stores to the scrap heap of history. But the old guard is fighting back, and it is doing so by turning what’s been perceived as a fatal flaw—people needing to schlep to their locations—into a selling point.

Stephen Jay, head of retail consultancy Fitch, is one of a number of industry experts who believe 2014 could herald the start of a comeback for brick-and-mortar retailers, driven in large part by their increasing tendency to peddle experiences rather than stuff.

“For retailers, the hard sell is becoming less important than getting across brand values and providing something distinctive and fun,” Jay says. The idea is that soon we could find ourselves going to Macy’s for a craft workshop or JCPenney for a yoga session, very often leaving the stores empty-handed but brimming with brand loyalty.

“As more transactions occur online, the high street will evolve into a place for entertainment, learning and just hanging out,” says Ron Magliocco, global head of shopper marketing at ad agency JWT. For Magliocco, online retail, for all its benefits, is missing a vital component. “Humans,” he says, “need to interact with other humans.”

Interaction, indeed, has become a cherished buzzword in the retail industry. Already some stores are emulating Apple’s Genius Bars, the chummy support stations that are the beating heart of Apple emporia. Target, for one, is rolling out Beauty Concierges, consultants who promise to provide impartial advice rather than sales pitches. Similarly, J. Crew now has Very Personal Stylists, who will open the store early or stay late “to work around your schedule.” How nice.

This be-our-guest approach has taken root across a variety of institutions. In some banks, financial advisers roam chill-out-style lounges, while revamped 7-Eleven stores have installed café seating, free Wi-Fi and televisions. Last year, Radio Shack made hospitality the bedrock of its new brand identity, billing itself as “a neighborhood technology playground.”

Not surprisingly, Disney has been a pioneer of the play-as-you-go idea, spending half a billion dollars to turn stores into high-tech Imagination Parks. “Disney realized that the world does not need another place to sell merchandise,” Magliocco says. “If kids go there to play with the interactive displays or in the Disney castle and have a happy experience, the investment will pay off for the company in the long run.”

While these experiential initiatives are largely brand-building exercises, they also represent an effort to push back against encroaching online retailers. Some companies, meanwhile, have opted for a third way, a hybridization of virtual and physical, such as the digital supermarket shelves installed by Tesco at transportation hubs, which allow commuters to scan items with their phones, for later delivery.

“Technology has started to make it possible for brick-and-mortar and e-commerce to complement each other,” says Jay, “and the best retailers are joining the dots.”

One of the early dot-joiners was online menswear retailer Bonobos, which, in 2011, opened the first of its Guideshops—or “physical portals”—where customers can sip coffee in an environment not unlike a traditional tailor while choosing from hundreds of permutations of cut, color and fabric. The only thing you cannot do at these shops is take anything home.

 “A shop’s range used to be restricted by how much inventory it could carry. Instead, we give the customer a great experience in a nice environment and keep the inventory somewhere else,” explains Bonobos co-founder Andy Dunn. “Men don’t mind leaving a store without carrying a shopping bag.”

Other retailers are starting to experiment with this “showrooming” approach. The Spanish fashion chain Desigual has opened outlets that employ personal shoppers but no sales staff, while Moosejaw Mountaineering aims to turn its stores into what Magliocco calls “living websites.”

Magliocco believes that as the line between virtual and physical shopping blurs, an ever-increasing number of shops will become showrooms. “It was always this way with automobiles,” he says. “Now it is moving down the price model. Why would a store today stock 500 slightly different cameras? That’s what the Internet is for.”

For Jay, the very idea of a life-or-death struggle between virtual and physical retail is itself becoming outdated. “If the online part of the shopping experience is about price and convenience, the high street is about experience and service,” he says. “And this is a good thing for both retailers and consumers.”

But not a good thing for everyone, perhaps—with so many stores handing out free drinks and snacks, you have to wonder what will happen to Starbucks.

Boyd Farrow, a London-based writer, plans to sell his furniture and move into the Gap.

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