Retail realities

October 6, 2010 at 11:28 am | In ideas, innovation, victoria | Comments Off on Retail realities

Yesterday’s post about ordering New Glasses online prompted Robert Randall to comment with some questions and thoughts about the future of retail.

My first response was to point out that I posed those very questions way back in December 2006 in my article, Consuming Downtown. This is hardly a new problem, and if local retailers haven’t woken up to the dangers that online retail poses, they must be dreaming.

Looking at my New Glasses conundrum: I’m not in a position to pay the bricks-and-mortar surcharge on stylish-looking glasses at this time, and if an online retailer can provide the service and the product at a considerably cheaper price, I’ll take my business there. However, if a bricks-and-mortar retailer offered the right shopping experience, maybe I’d dig deeper and pay the surcharge after all.

So what can a bricks-and-mortar store do to draw in customers?

Perhaps Victoria is a “special” case with plenty of people who still shop traditionally, because I don’t get the impression that traditional outlets here are hurting. Yet. But if a retailer were to continue doing business the old way, then starts to hurt, and then complains about the new ways muscling in on his/ her business (as Robert’s friend seemed to have done with regard to LensCrafters) – if that happens you have to wonder what the retailer was thinking.

It’s really not an either / or thing (either bricks-and-mortar or online).

If a bricks-and-mortar eye-wear store wanted to draw me into its store, it would first have to make sure that it has an absolutely Wow!gorgeous online presence. Glasses are items I might shop for only every couple of years, which means I’m not comfortable just “popping in” to the store to look around. A specialized store where I’m likely to shell out a few hundred dollars only every few years is a bit like a commercial art gallery: there’s a lot of threshold resistance because I don’t want to encounter over-eager or overly-snobby sales people, and I don’t want to be reminded that I can’t afford this or that, and that my choices are therefore limited to really generic looking crap. In my case, this means I’ll want to do my initial browsing online, to see if this store and I could possibly be sympatico. It should then be a bonus that, living in the same city, I can actually walk into the store to examine the goods up-close.

If the store wants to hold my attention, it should avoid offering everything. I despise most eyewear stores because they sell too much stuff that would never look good on me. I need instead to know that if I go in there, I’ll find something I can like. It’s a waste of my time to go from store to store looking at 15 gazillion variations of the same “vanilla” frames (the “mall” experience), all of which don’t speak to what I want to express. If you’re going to offer 15 gazillion types of frames, put them online, for god’s sake, but don’t “display” them in your store (use your online site for that).

Instead, concentrate your in-store displays to highlight specific looks, with a seasonal focus on collections and on what’s hot as an overall look: eyewear is fashion, forget about selling it as science or some impossibly rarefied, hard-to-produce item. With today’s optical labs, lens quality just shouldn’t be something the consumer is supposed to worry about. Top quality should be the standard, a given. And if it’s not given, you’ll hear about it because I’ll be bringing it back for a refund.

Let’s take a look at a local bricks-and-mortar store that succeeds as an online retailer, too, because of the way it has managed to carve out a very specific niche: Baggins Shoes on lower Johnson Street in Victoria, BC. Baggins (established as a store in 1969) bills itself as having the world’s largest selection of Converse shoes, which (along with Vans, Heelys, and Dinosoles Shoes) it sells online as well as in its – yes – bricks-and-mortar store. Baggins sells a lot, but it drills down into depth, with an exclusive focus on a certain kind of shoe. Luckily for Baggins, those shoes come in 15 gazillion variations, which means they never sell vanilla, but instead sell specialized flavors of a particular “hip” brand. Baggins leverages social media, too (their blog is dead, but check out their Facebook page, Youtube, and Twitter streams), …and yet its physical retail experience is treasured by many. See, for example, Elizabeth McClung’s blog post on her buying experience at Baggins, Crisp Lesbian Lolita Gothic: or “How my clothes control people.” (Bonus: click through for a photo of Elizabeth’s sales person, holding a pair of Rosie the Riveter sneakers.)

If I ever buy a pair of Converse shoes, you can bet I’ll buy them at Baggins. And if I ever saw as zingy a blog post about an optical / eyewear shop as McClung’s post about buying sneakers at Baggins, I’d take my business there. Especially if they had a good website where I could shop virtually first, trying glasses on virtually and seeing the price before I commit.

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