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.