Consumers shop at Liberty because of the store ambience, the fabulous merchandising, the personal treatment, and mostly, because it is a lifestyle statement

Consumers shop at Liberty because of the store ambience, the fabulous merchandising, the personal treatment, and mostly, because it is a lifestyle statement

Brick and mortar companies cannot compete online. If they try, they will lose, and they will lose hard, writes Emma Birnbaum. Here she takes a closer look at why brick and mortar is not dead, but is just being mishandled.

While a few companies have traversed the gap between brick and mortar and ecommerce, the vast majority of retailers have not. Most brick and mortar versions of e-stores are more comparable to old school catalogues than actual shops, providing static, vague images alongside incomplete, and sometimes, incorrect information.

The rapid move to compete online is fuelled by the pervasive belief that the consumer is driving sales from brick and mortar to ecommerce. Retailers assume the consumer is no longer interested in going shopping and instead delights in the utilitarian ease of the virtual store, which is proven by a fairly universal trend by the decrease of brick and mortar sales and an increase in online sales.

However, if your company's net profit is decreasing, any uptick in profit generated by ecommerce is more than likely at the expense of your brick and mortar.

By and large, the companies that excel in online commerce are native to the internet and have built business models infused into every essential facet of the web. This includes the obvious: multi-device apps, vast social media presence, omnichannel consumer interaction, plus complex and free product distribution and returns.

Ultimately, the e-company's entire infrastructure is based on information flow, and data aggregation, mining and analysis, which are used to ascertain exactly what their consumer wants and will want, from product design to delivery speed.

E-brands that dominate the market such as Amazon, Zalando, and Asos are not fashion companies that know how to use tech; they are tech companies that sell fashion. These retailers, and others like them, own ecommerce because they built the ecommerce. Competing with them is at best akin to Mo Farah racing a cheetah.

That being said, at least for the time being, Amazon, Asos, and Zalando cannot compete in the physical world. Traditional retail can and should start right now.

Shopping as an event

Our physical cities are built and sustained by commercial enterprise. The consumer's navigation of the vast retail network is an ancient ritual, existing since the dawn of civilisation, predating the internet by millennia.

While the impact of ecommerce goliaths is beyond dispute, I have yet to interact with a website that duplicates the socially binding rite and visceral experience of: trying on ridiculous outfits with a friend, the joy of watching my boyfriend emerge from a dressing room in a dapper suit, or serendipitously finding a dress I love so much I walk out of the store wearing it. Going shopping is not about convenience. Going shopping is an event.

Retailers must remember and rekindle who they were, what they offered, and what made them different

While the methods of shopping may have changed, the ritual has not. Retailers must remember and rekindle who they were, what they offered, and what made them different.

This does not mean, however, that you should forgo the internet. Do not confuse ecommerce with the plethora of technology-based functions, systems, tools, and information.  Use and adapt what already exists to generate, refine, and amplify the in-store experience.

A few companies are already doing this. Recently, Debenhams announced a consumer experience overhaul. Zara is testing iPads in its fitting rooms. The single goal of the start-up Oak Labs is to fix the brick and mortar environment. Rebecca Minkoff is already integrating their smart mirrors into her stores.

Implementing technology and reimagining the brick and mortar interface is not about the superficial experience, it opens a new portal for dialogue. If retailers integrate new tools into their stores they must also be active users. Dialogue is a two-way conversation. The more you reach out, the more consumers respond. The more you interact with your consumer, the more you understand them as individuals.

As Amazon founder Jeff Bezos said: "We see our customers as invited guests to a party, and we are the hosts. It's our job every day to make every important aspect of the customer experience a little bit better."

Not only does Amazon record each interaction with its site and app, it also analyses and uses the information to personalise the consumer experience. The more you "window shop", purchase, and interact with its platform the more accurate product recommendation becomes. Shopping on Amazon is economical, enjoyable, informative and efficient. However, it is not transcendent or electrifying. 

Tailor-made environments

The vast majority of consumers, including millennials, want to shop in physical stores. But, by and large, stores do not deliver. 

There are two types of stores, service and self-service. This article will focus on the former.

Service driven stores are defined by the people who provide the service. There are some very successful service-driven stores. On the high street: COS, &Other Stories, Intimissimi, and Massimo Dutti. In the premium range: Liberty of London and Selfridges.

&Other Stories is an ideal example. Its shop assistants look, dress, speak and act like their consumer (defined, by me, as: female, professional, between 28 and 45 years of age). While some employees may be on the young side, they are educated or obtaining their degree, usually in fashion or another creative field and have specific career goals, either to move up in the company – which is owned by the H&M group – or to use their work experience as a stepping stone to more lofty positions within the industry. &Other Stories' employees know more than what is in stock: they have an opinion on fit, size and style. In addition, they are great conversationalists.

&Other Stories is creating an ethos that deeply resonates with its consumer beyond the products they sell

Why is it relevant that a store employee has opinions on contemporary Chinese art, the death of Alexander McQueen, and the best location to go for cocktails in the vicinity? Their knowledge is relevant because &Other Stories is creating an ethos that deeply resonates with its consumer beyond the products they sell. More than the clothes I tried on, their price tags, and ad campaigns, I remember the people and interactions. That is why I always return to &Other Stories. 

That being said, there is always room for improvement. While the product presentation is lovely and arranged according to collection, even employees find it difficult to keep track of item location and dispersal. &Other Stories does not merchandise according to traditional seasons. Additionally, products that are not selling well in one store are moved to another; therefore not only does each &Other Stories store carry a slightly varying range but one can never be certain that what was in stock one day will remain in stock next week.

Some of the changes that could be implemented to facilitate the shopping experience might mean that before entering the store, consumers whould have access to information regarding every aspect of the shopping environment and items in stock. The data might include:

  • A record of every style, in the colours and sizes available.
  • An interactive map, displaying the location of each item in the store.
  • Product recommendations, based both on personal purchasing history and the purchasing history of other consumers.
  • Self-checkout with apple/android pay.
  • An in store messaging service to contact store employees.

All technology integrated into a store should be there to create a seamless, intuitive, tailor-made environment for your particular consumer. Any thoughtlessness regarding new applications, devices and software will result in a gimmicky store, which does more to hamper the shopping process than facilitate the experience. Ultimately, all new systems and tech must be there to enhance the brick and mortar environment, not to duplicate ecommerce.  

Cultivating a lifestyle

Liberty London, while considerably more expensive than &Other Stories, is also founded on service. In fact, Liberty takes service to the next level. I cannot afford to purchase more than a couple of products a year at Liberty, yet Richard (a wonderful sales associate) remembers who I am, takes his time showing me around the store, discusses my style and taste, and talks about his opinions on the ever-changing world of fashion.

Liberty identifies me a future consumer and is actively grooming me to shop in its store. It is playing the long game; what I can buy here and now is irrelevant. This exchange is proof that it is not asking for my loyalty but rather, solidifying its loyalty to me.

Consumers shop at Liberty because of the store ambience, the fabulous merchandising, the personal treatment, and mostly, because it is a lifestyle statement. A Liberty customer is cool, has real personal style, is educated on brands and products, and is looking to have a Liberty curated experience. People visit Liberty because they want to be there; not because of the products it offers but because they are transported to a one-of-a-kind, timeless, fantasy world.

Liberty's brick and mortar service model has not wavered since it was established in 1875. However, its online presence does not reflect its meticulously crafted environment. It is a mishmash of ecommerce, recommended products, and blog posts.

Liberty should not be selling online. Consumers know there are more affordable, more accessible sites that offer the same items. By competing with online retailers such as The Outnet, Yoox, FarFetch and many more, it is cheapening its brand. Visiting Liberty should be an event on par with visiting the Sacchi & Sacchi gallery. Perhaps not for everyone, but for those it resonates with, it becomes essential.

Liberty.com should be about creating a a lifestyle that people want to have now – and one they can aspire to in the future

This sentiment should be evoked through its online presence. Forget about selling and buying. The website and social should be a mecca for the Liberty consumer, recreating the iconic environment on users' devices and in their homes. Liberty.com should be about cultivating lifestyle. Publish articles not just on fashion, but on travel, food and fascinating people. Upload amazing in-store playlists, personal video interviews with designers and inspirational industry leaders. Create tutorials not just on how to wear new trends but on how to cultivate individuality through style, taste and interests. Don't just create a lifestyle that people want to have now – but one that people can aspire to cultivate and transform in the future.

United community

It is vital that brick and mortar stores begin to use the internet outside of commercial exchange as a way of interacting with their consumers by becoming not only a source of knowledge, inspiration, and entertainment, but a united community of like-minded individuals.

A remarkable example of this was Nike+ Run Club's original app, which provided a game-like environment to encourage people to take up running. The app was hugely successful because it did more than encourage people to run. It redefined the user's identity. Joggers became runners and runners were athletes. People were no longer just running to lose weight or exercise. The experience was about becoming stronger and faster, working harder and pushing yourself to be and do more.

Nike+ Run Club fulfilled an essential role in the user's life. It is not a coincidence that Nike is rated as one of the most trusted retailers by millennial consumers. This is not because of their products. It is because of the ethos it shares with its entire consumer body, regardless of whether or not you can afford its products.

Without a doubt great products are essential. However they are not enough

Without a doubt great products are essential. However they are not enough. As anyone who has applied to a highly competitive university knows, grades will only take you so far. As are essential, but it is the other stuff that puts you over the edge. Products are becoming secondary. Consumers are no longer looking for reasons to buy; they are looking for reasons not to buy.

The entire review system is now being reformatted to inform consumers of what they do not need. Forums, with thousands of followers, discussing who makes the best and worst of every item, be it T-shirts, mom jeans, athletic socks, padded bras. Websites, with hundreds of thousands of subscribers, with the primary objective of rating the best and worst of every fashion product out there. Bloggers are no longer telling you what you need; they are telling you what is a waste of money.

There are so many options and so much stuff that saying "no" is the only way to find anything.

Success will be determined by separating yourself from the pack. Forget about competitors. Competing is comparing. You should be in a class of your own, defined by your niche market; so closely in tune with your narrow consumer base that you instinctively react to any fluctuation and need.

To succeed, you must resurrect yourselves as pioneers.