“Online is the future and if you have a brick-and-mortar business and don’t sell online, you are going to go under.”
Such has been the modern wisdom in business for a while. But is online now going brick-and-mortar?
First Amazon proved that you could sell books online. People were amazed that you could go online sitting on your sofa, easily browse thousands of book titles, click a few buttons and have a man come to your door the next day with what you wanted. Magic.
When people are amazed, you know you are onto something. And what followed was a horizontal explosion of eCommerce.
First into the most apparent categories, such as electronics, where customers don’t really need to try anything on and know pretty much exactly what they want and are going to get.
Many were more sceptical about clothing, but Asos and others showed that this could work too, if done right. Net-a-porter demonstrated that it even worked for the high-end.
Customers were going online, and for a while the media offered dystopian – or paradisical depending on your viewpoint – visions of a future with streets full of empty storefronts and everybody sitting at home clicking “put in basket”.
But there was a problem with these visions: Why buy things if you can’t show them to anybody?
People are social beings and when we go shopping we don’t just do it to get stuff. We also do it to show our stuff and thereby assert our own identities by letting our possessions act as cultural signals.
Hipster? Preppy? Trendy casual? Dandy? Punky? Emo? Classic? Businessy? You have to show it to be it. And everybody else has to too.
Add to this the potential joy of the actual physical shopping experience, the instant gratification when purchasing, as well as the advantages of touching and smelling a potential new acquisition, and you have a pretty strong case for brick-and-mortar shops too.
And it’s been this way for centuries. After toiling in the fields the whole week, what did our ancestors do at the weekend? Put on their best clothes and went to the town market!
So what is it going to be? The magical convenience and endless choice – or smelling the leather of a possible purchase while flaunting your new Italian shoes?
Well, as eCommerce is maturing, what is happening is not an either or, but a merger.
Apple, of course, produces devices for digital consumption – and for buying things online – but have experienced huge successes with their brick-and-mortar retail branch that first opened up shop in 2001.
Likewise, some forward thinking traditional manufacturers/resellers are now working to integrate their physical presence with their online presence – such as Burberry who recreates in-store the taxonomy they use to classify items on their website, as well as makes use of online content in their stores. Everything is coordinated so a change online is reflected in the store – and vice versa.
This evolution could be described as:
Physical ► physical + online ► physical/online
But how about:
Online ► physical/online
A few years ago when most people were seeing the imminent demise of brick-and-mortar, this was unthinkable. Remember, the future was online. Why would a retailer that was born online go brick-an-mortar?
But the evolution has started. Last year the American online eyeware retailer Warby Parker opened its first physical shop, and others, such as Bonobos, are opening showrooms where products are on display and can be discovered, felt and tried – “shopped”, basically – but can’t actually be bought in the shop. Instead, you order online once you have made your pick.
A physical presence helps builds a brand – it adds credibility to it, makes it more tangible. It allows for the full shopping experience and can, if merged correctly with online, offer customers a best-of-both-worlds experience.
In the future we will only see more integration between on- and offline retail. Many online-only businesses will thrive, but the big winners will be the ones who understand how to merge the two paradigms into one.
At Waremakers, the online start-up that I head, we are still a little too small to also go offline. But the ambition is one day to physically manifest the philosophy of quality and simplicity that we work to promote online.
The distinction is breaking down. As ‘online’ becomes normalised and everyday, it is absorbed into the physical reality and becomes an intrinsic part of it. The future is bricks online – and online bricks.