Several of today’s most successful e-commerce retailers are doing something that would have been unheard-of five years ago: opening brick and mortar locations. They have discovered that many consumers actually want to touch and feel and sample products before making a purchase. They have also learned that having both a physical and a digital presence gives them opportunities that the Internet alone cannot.
The term being used is omnichannel, a multi-channel sales approach that places the retailer wherever its customers are. It calls for a holistic way of thinking about the consumer’s experience and requires discipline and balance. Because ideally, the retailer will provide a cohesive, seamless and consistent experience, whether it’s happening via a mobile app, a website or in an actual store. Every touch point should be consistent with the brand standards—no easy feat.
Bonobos is an e-commerce menswear company that has made it work. For the ten-year old Bonobos, the move across channels from online-only to include brick and mortar was so successful that the company was acquired by Walmart. The big box retailer wanted to learn from the more nimble Bonobos how to create a robust online presence that would work hand-in-hand with their 5,000+ locations.
Allbirds (woolen casual shoes for men and women) and Away Travel (hard-shell luggage) have also successfully morphed from online-only to including storefronts in select markets. Both companies found a niche in their category and taken off quickly. Both companies were attracted to the opportunities available via a brick and mortar location. Allbirds’ store in New York even has a life-size hamster wheel so customers can take a run in the sneakers before buying them, an experience that the most sophisticated website is unable to offer.
Even the online behemoth Amazon is opening a variety of brick and mortar locations in its continuing effort to expand its brand presence and consumer reach. The company launched Amazon Books in 2015, and purchased Whole Foods for $13.7 billion last June. Most recently the first Amazon Go opened in Seattle. The ultimate “convenience store,” Amazon Go has been designed so there’s no check-out, making the convenience store experience even faster and more convenient.
Capital One, the financial services giant, has opened Capital One Cafés, locations with a very un-bank-like vibe and offering co-working space, free Wi-Fi and Peet’s coffee. And yes, you can also get information about checking accounts and auto loans, but it is not a requirement for enjoying the café.
What each of these companies has discovered is that leasing square footage in a great location isn’t just about building a profit center. Brick and mortar units can be a rich source for data and consumer interaction as well. They offer another channel for building a brand, polishing an image, marketing a lifestyle and offering an experience. These companies see their retail locations as giant advertisements that consumers can explore and revisit time and time again. The messaging from the people who work there, the design aesthetic, the merchandising, the signage in the window—it’s all part and parcel of their brand identity, another opportunity to make a good impression and to earn a loyal customer.