There will always be a place for physical stores. Even in an age where you can get groceries delivered fresh to your doorstep, toiletries delivered on time every month, and even completely customized kitchens sent in lots of small packages to your house, there will always be those that need to touch, to browse, to enjoy the experience of shopping. To go and just see what’s out there in a physical environment.
But this isn’t about that. There’s another purpose of a store besides buying things. Yes, you heard right. Store that aren’t meant to sell physical goods seem counter to the purpose of a store. And yet in this digital age many stores need to evolve, to change, to meet the needs of their customers. And since many things now can be delivered at the same quality, for less cost, stores will need to modify their models to bring in their customers. They need to ask what they offer that these online companies can’t offer, or at least not offer well. And that is service.
Many online companies have pretty good customer service. This isn’t about that either. This is about a social interaction environment that online just can’t quite match. Take the apple store. Everything you can buy in there they offer, at the same cost, on their website. In fact they have a smaller section of third-party offers. When in there you are limited to what’s in stock in the store, and can’t just click another button to see what’s available elsewhere. So why do so many people walk into the apple stores, and then walk out with stuff? Is it that they’d not realize the Internet exists? That they can get all this and more on the world-wide web?
It’s because they offer a service. Apple looks at what a customer needs and wants beyond the product. They want the ability to play with an object before buying, ask questions with someone knowledgeable while buying, and help after they have their product at the genius bar and the free classes. All these go beyond the product to something more. Something the web can’t quite duplicate. All these companies that have been replaced by their online counterparts have that in common. Service above and beyond the product.
Best Buy also fits this model. When they first came out they were a standard electronic store: CDs, DVDs, games, etc. Now they offer home theater advice, a geek squad to help fix and set up your equipment, and installation of electronics right in your home. You can buy the latest DVD release, or game, or tv online, but you miss out the interaction, the comparison that you can’t easily do online. Their employees can help with which tv works for your room, and what version of the latest blue ray will fit your needs. If your really techie you’ll figure it out, but for the average consumer that service is needed to make a good decision. And since best buy changed their model from a typical electronics store, they didn’t fall into the same trap that CompUSA and other big chain electronic stores have run into.
What does this mean for other companies? They need to figure out what their customers need. Not just in products, but what they need to purchase, buy, and continue to use it. They need to keep the communication opens and entice them back into the store, back into their community, well after they have made their purchase. This also might be a good jumping point for other online companies to enter the brick and mortar stores. It’s not an instant solution, as gateway and Sony both experienced. But if you can figure out what your customers actually need beyond your products, you’ll have long-term loyal customers. And that’s in today’s environment is worth more than shipping a few extra models.