If Physical Retail Stores Want to Stick Around, They’ll Still Have to Go Digital

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online shopping with modern fashion shop

By Michael Schnapf

It’s no secret that the foundation has been crumbling out from beneath traditional retailers. According to statistics published by Coresight Research, a whopping 5,864 stores shuttered their doors in 2018; by spring of 2019, number of closures for 2019 had already exceeded the total number of store closings of the preceding year.

Even the giants haven’t been spared; traffic at once-bustling department stores has all but evaporated, and Toys “R” Us and Payless ShoeSource have both closed entirely. Kmart and Sears have given up on hundreds of locations. The barrage of closings has hollowed out shopping centers, leaving them shadows of their former lively selves. Ghost malls—centers with 50% or less occupancy—are becoming more common.

Dan Bell, a filmmaker who has made a name for himself documenting the proliferation of such spaces, reports that in some cases, malls have become near-wild abandoned spaces. “[Frogs] were actually living in the pool underneath the elevator, the center court elevator,” he shared with Business Insider of a mall in Ohio. “The water had pooled up in the well of the elevator, and there were frogs living in the pool, and … there was a bank of fog in the food court just hanging mid-air.”

Future of brick-and-mortar?

No retailer wants to imagine that their prized store is going to be given up as a home for frogs someday. And yet, the decline of traditional brick-and-mortar sales is as well-established as the cause of its fall: online shopping. Online commerce is just too convenient to pass up.

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Rather than spending an hour or more driving and walking around a shopping center, a consumer can click through a purchase in the space of seconds from the comfort of their couch. With same- or two-day shipping, shopping online doesn’t require buyers to sacrifice much immediate satisfaction, either.

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Now, this isn’t to say that brick and mortar shopping is outmoded quite yet — but e-commerce is certainly on-track to outpace it. Figures circulated by the U.S. Department of Commerce reveal e-commerce sales saw a 16.9% increase from the third quarter of 2018 to the same period in 2019, and accounted for 11.2% of total sales. Brick-and-mortar sales, in contrast, rose just 2.9% in 2019 from the previous year. The shift away from traditional retail further appears to be proceeding along generational lines: according to Statista, 67% of millennials, 56% of Gen Xers, 41% of baby boomers, and only 28% of seniors prefer online shopping to making purchases in-store.

And yet, hope isn’t out of reach for brick-and-mortar stores. If traditional retail stores can manage to hybridize into digital offerings, bolster convenience, and once again spark consumer interest in the shopping experience, they may be able to weather the closings storm.

Here are some tactics they may take:

Embrace online shopping

The most successful surviving retailers meld online and offline shopping. Retail giant Target, for example, has been notably exempt from the closing epidemic in part because it has successfully built an online ecosystem. Smaller businesses should follow its example and create a presence in the digital market as well—even if they don’t have Target’s admittedly enormous budget to do so.

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