Stores will never die

I had the good fortune of attending a retail conference last week in Chicago. The Friday morning keynote was Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice. The book is phenomenal and I highly recommend it. However, the best part for me was talking to the author after the show.

The book's subtitle is "How the culture of abundance robs us of satisfaction." Mr. Schwartz explained how having 40 toothpastes, 175 salad dressings and 275 cereals in the store leaves us paralyzed, unable to make good decisions, and ultimately feeling less satisfied with the choices we make. I couldn't agree more; our grocery stores carry an average of 30,000 items and enough is enough.

While I was having my book signed, a woman approached Barry Schwartz and said she was from eBay. She asked, "eBay carries millions of items. Are we perpetuating the culture of abundance?" And he thought about it, and said, "No. Because when I go on eBay, or Amazon, or any other website, I know what I want. Amazon might carry a million books, but for me, it only sells about 7. And I want all of them."

What a neat way to think of it. We don't have to know about all those other choices - we've deselected them the moment we type into our search boxes. Amazon isn't overwhelming because I typically know what I want, and I can find it easily.

But what if I don't know what I want? Well then, shopping online is a little harder. Can you really ever "window shop" online? You can view pictures and read descriptions, but if you haven't met the item face-to-face, it's a little harder to Buy It Now. People do, and sometimes it works out, but sometimes it doesn't, and they feel skeptical the next time around.

Personally, if I don't know exactly what I want, I need brick-and-mortar stores. I need to meet, shake hands and get to know my product. Maybe it's a blouse or some lipstick or a set of speakers or a lamp - but I want to decide in three dimensions before I buy in two.

So my theory is this: websites are better when I know what I want. Stores are better when I don't.

It's not that you can't browse online, or go straight to your product in a store. They're just not that good at it - yet. But what if we consider the implications of each, encroaching on the other's territory? What if stores were more like websites, and websites were more like stores?

Well, imagine if I walked into a store and was able to beeline it for the exact item I wanted? I suppose I would be shopping inside a physical version of Amazon. And wouldn't that be neat - I walk into a giant warehouse, tell them I want black strappy sandals, and am transported via a series of superfast moving sidewalks to the black strappy sandal section, where 7 pairs of shoes await my consideration?

Or the opposite case - what if I was browsing on Bestbuy.com, but could don virtual reality goggles which allowed me to type in "Sony video camera," and then suddenly "pick up," "turn on" and "use" 7 different Handycams? You heard it here first, people!

But seriously, smart folks have been predicting the death of retail for years. Saying that one day, physical stores will crash and burn because you can get anything you've ever wanted from the internet. Ultimately, I believe this is not true, for one simple reason: humans will never be able to know what they want, 100% of the time. There will always be moments of indecision. And even if we think we know, we will never be out of new choices. Sure, we settle into routines, and we know we like Tide detergent, Apple computers and size 32-28 jeans from the Gap. Perhaps we can just order these things, online, forever. But what if new jean styles come out? How will we know what kind is best? We better head to the mall to try them on.

I don't think that physical retail will ever die. Unless my crazy versions of the future come true (which they could, I suppose), people will still get in their cars and go to the store when they don't know what they want. Web shopping is still growing, and I don't think we've reached equilibrium yet, but it will come. We'll learn how to use both channels effectively to manage our levels of choice. If stores culled their selections and improved wayfinding, they'd inch ahead in the race. If websites got better at sensory experience somehow, they'd inch ahead. But I say, stick with your strengths. Let stores be GREAT at browsing, let websites be GREAT at beelining, and let us all finish our shopping and go outside to play.


Stacy said...

I think a website that is beginning to fit the "I don't know what I want" niche very well is Zappos.com, a shoe store. They do it in quite a simple way, too: free shipping AND free return shipping.

My old roommate (who, granted, is a bit of an obsessive online shopper) was the perfect person for this ploy. She would order 10 different pairs of black heels on Zappos. They would all arrive 1 to 2 days later. She would spend the evening trying them all on. Then, she would return 9 of them. It's not immediate satisfaction like at a store (and I'm sure her credit card was a morass of charges and un-charges) but Zappos made it EASY to try things on...and they had a better selection than you'd find in an entire mall worth of shoe stores.

hillary said...

obviously certain products will cross the boundaries set forth by your 2x2 assertion.

in the zappos example, shoes have certain standards based off of brand, sizing, etc. i would order shoes by trusted brands online, certainly if i owned the brand before and knew my sizing. i'm generally a size 8 but that can fluctuate. with most clothing (and sometimes shoes), it's not as straight-forward. i would not want to have to deal with ordering the same product in various sizes (esp. since most online places don't offer free return shipping) to find the right fit. this would esp. be difficult with unknown brands.

in zach's example (on your flickr site) of books, he claims that you can browse online easily because of user reviews and stuff. first, this asserts that you DO know what you want (a book about china for example) and is of a product where there's only one level of unknown (whether you will like the book). there are no fit/quality of product issues that makes online shopping difficult. with books, if all i knew was that i wanted one, walking around borders and having that experience of just feeling out what might appeal to me is HUGE; looking at covers, reading book jackets, and stuff like that.

as for brick-and-morter stores, i think that some are better at immediately helping you find stuff when you know what you are looking for than others are. obviously employees can help (which i'm not all that into), but often signage and organization are especially superior. okay...so i can't really think of a great example, but stores like the apple store (which is super-open and easy to see products/features) or stores with products that are highly organized (uh, like book stores) can be good at this.

while browsing shopping sites online can be a completely gratifying way to spend my working hours, i wouldn't give up wandering around real stores for anything. i think when it comes to fashion, especially, inspiration comes from the immersion.

lastly, i also think that all of our opinions are coming from being people who are extremely internet-savvy. it's going to be a LOOOOOONG time before my mom would do any, if all, of her shopping online.

sara said...

Thanks Stacy and Hillary for your great points.

How about this. If you can type your item into a search box, and get back meaningful results, you officially "know what you want." At least in my book.

You don't have to know the exact item (ie "The Lonely Planet China Guide") but you have to know enough about the item to narrow down the world of, say, books. Try typing "book" into google and you get back a bunch of new search engines, confused that you haven't been more specific.

If you just know you want a video camera, a store will give you a better experience of exploring and perusing. That's not to say you couldn't learn about the item online, or find way more detailed, objective or opinionated information. You can read that it weighs 2.5 pounds, but how does that feel in your hand?

Nancy said...

I have been browsing the Internet for kitchen furniture. I found my "dream table" and some great chairs online, but would be reluctant to order them without seeing them in person, particularly the chairs. How would I know if they were too tall, too wide, or uncomfortable? But where are the stores that have these items on display? Very hard to locate!

Anand said...

Sara.., I agree with you on what you said about when to use a website for shopping and when to use the brick and mortar stores..but then I disagree on your point made in the first few lines, about too many products ruining the experience...

Well, let me speak in the Indian perspective..I have lived through two phases - pre 1991 and post 1991 when the economy was liberalised.. and I can see a huge difference in what I get to choose..

Back then, everything had not more than two brands in the category...Yes, we never had to worry about what brand to go for..but the quality was bad as well..but now, the simple concept called compeitition is giving me so much value for my money...i will never want to let go of this...so, from my experience.., too many is not bad at all...

C. B. Whittemore said...

I have just included you in a post at http://flooringtheconsumer.blogspot.com and listed you in my blogroll. I really enjoy your blog.

Judith said...

The difficulty I see with the choices in the supermarkets is that so many of them are "false choices". Many are even made by the same company, but have different labels. They are essentially the same thing in different packages. True choice is lacking - for example, in the produce department we no longer see anything that can't be shipped easily or has the wrong ratio of fruit to seed. The agricultural industry has severely narrowed our choices (which is why farmers' markets are beginning to make a comeback).

As for your point about knowing what you want and not knowing, I think it's valid to a point. I usually go to a brick-and-mortar store when I want some very specific items and I want them now. Groceries, for example. Or a book I just read about and want right away.

Oh, I am putting that book on my wishlist. It sounds like just the ticket to me, just the type book I love to read. Along with all the other types. Thanks for the recommendation!