Offline Retail Will Save Us
But first, it will change drastically. We (as consumers) will change too.
It’s been interesting to watch the growth and now backlash of online shopping and retailing. I remember hunting on eBay for second-hand luxury goods (several Prada bags, all of which were in fact authentic, and a Louis Vuitton wallet, which was definitely counterfeit) as a teenager, feeling like I was rolling the dice but also getting a great deal. Who knows what would actually show up?
Those were the early days of internet commerce.
Remember when we were all concerned that putting our credit card information into a website might result in identity theft? How quaint and comical, given the broader data breeches we face now (and how much we all just resign to them).
In 2018, nearly twenty years later, never before have so many things been within reach, just a few clicks away. In most cases, already-saved payment information and free 2-day shipping makes the distance between “Oh, I sorta need _______” to “oooh, quelle surprise!” when it arrives IRL much much shorter.
And for many needs, in many instances, this is great news for consumer choice, convenience, efficiency, etc. Or, for folks living far away from access to the things they like.
I need this very specific type of vegan protein powder ASAP, because I’m down to my last few scoops and I can’t possibly hit the gym without ingesting it after my workout. Tap, tap, Amazon Prime, 36 hours later…Woop!
But what we’ve seen too, with e-commerce and behemoths like Amazon, are some very ugly externalities to our world caused by this technology-led marketplace: questionable environmental-friendliness of the surge in parcels criss-crossing the air, land, and sea, mostly individually-wrapped and packaged with plastics, in cardboard boxes.
The decimation of main street / high street / independent local retail ecosystems, which generally cannot compete on price or selection—their only “pro” being immediacy and perhaps curation. The former is why we still have chains like Rite Aid and Walgreens for in-the-moment sorts of needs.
What’s more, e-mail inboxes are now flooded, and by that I mean deluged, daily, with retailer or brand marketing e-mails, created and sent in hopes that you’ll buy buy buy. The “mark as spam and unsubscribe” feature of Gmail has become my go-to.
And formerly fun, non-commercialized platforms meant for social connection, information sharing, and shared passions have become sales channels: instagram, facebook, twitter, google.
No matter how closely online gets to replicating offline, with chat-bots or virtual reality or AI, with free shipping and returns (eliminating as much consumer risk as possible), there are still moments when we want to browse, test, or debate in person, with or without the help of a trusted advisor (i.e. proprietor, sales associate, stylist).
There will always be a faintly impersonal, sterile feel to placing an online order that doesn’t mimic the high and instant gratification of scoring something amazing in person. Or, looking, trying, and perhaps coming back later.
My prediction is: offline retail will see an even wider resurgence, once it becomes clear that independent local merchants are part of our communities, and communities, as integral parts of a healthy overall society, are critical.
But first, the models and conventions of commerce must change.
Since relocating to San Francisco, now going on four months, it’s been fascinating to see the retail landscape of a major U.S. metropolitan city. Commercial districts and offline retail are alive and well, but they have evolved.
First, “showrooming” will become standard. For digital-native startups, big brands, or brands with wider ambitions, showrooming is the new way to build-out and physically represent a brand, without having to stock the merch en masse. In essence, a physical space that drives people back to the website.
This relates to changing the metrics used to measure performance of physical retail — from sales per square foot to something like leads generated, persons engaged, etc. Some brands already doing this: Warby Parker, AWAY, Everlane, Allbirds, TheRealReal.
Even Nordstrom has begun experimenting with smaller-footprint stores that take the inventory away but retain all the service the brand is (was?) classically known for.
Next, independent, more eclectic local retailers will only survive if they present a unique point of view. What do they offer that users can’t get more easily and for cheaper online?
San Francisco is full of these kinds of stores — ones that are as much an experience and unique perspective unto themselves as they are functional spaces to procure. Like: shops to find ethically-made alpaca sweaters from Bolivia (Industry of All Nations) or new old stock eyewear from the 1940s and 1950s, when those sorts of things were still made in the USA (RetroSpecs).
Curation is another key to offline retail’s advantage. Because the buyers / proprietors / salespeople are often in direct contact with consumers, they can adapt rapidly, but also make recommendations or customize the offer on the spot.
Local bookstores do this so well, providing a space to explore, discover, but not be overwhelmed. There is something serendipitous to happen upon a book and take it home with you, vs. always knowing exactly what you need and going directly to that item.
I think it’s great there are companies out there addressing the ethical, environmental issues of fashion and retail at scale, by being more transparent (about many aspects of their offer, like markups or sourcing), by using sustainable, biodegradable fabrics like merino wool, or picking off a niche that is otherwise underserved, like affordable, functional, responsibly-made women's workwear (Argent and Nora Gardner come to mind).
But those modern solutions don’t address the desire for uniqueness, for personal connection to your seller, or to have a story that goes along with a purchase.
In order to preserve the specialness that is offline retail, especially independent local retail, we as consumers need to think before we buy.
“Do I really need ________?” If yes, is it available locally? If yes, is it priced reasonably to account for that immediacy / proximity convenience and also for a small markup on behalf of the small business owner? Is it really that important to save $3 (or $15) when you would be directly contributing to the local economy and local tax receipts of your city or town instead of to a black hole of executive bonuses and corporate tax breaks?”
OK, I digress.
But critically considering your purchase behaviors, where and when you are truly justified in purchasing something at all, and then choosing to order online vs. find locally, is the first step.
We also need to actively support local retail by making it easier for owners to start and maintain it. Like residential rents, retail rental rates have increased precipitously in recent years, making it harder for merchants to stay open. Once they leave, something more corporate moves in, or worse, nothing, and the storefront sits empty.
Imagine your neighborhood without any indie retail, just chains and empty façades. Guess what, you have a suburban mall!
Cities and policymakers can help make retail rents more reasonable, or provide incentives for landlords to prioritize local over corporate or chain.
This isn’t just a push from the strong neighborhoods, urban fabric perspective. Consumers are also more and more interested in artisanal, artistic, local, high-quality, heirloom-worthy, and customized goods, a la Etsy. A la farmers’ markets. A la “Made in California.”
Invest and keep, yeah?
While it can be luring to scan the web for all your accumulation and consumptive needs, almost mindlessly, at the request of all those pesky marketing messages you see on social media or in your inbox…sometimes you have to get from behind your computer and really engage with your fellow humans, the goods themselves, and the retail environment.
Much like capitalism and socialism, online and offline retail will come to a happy, complementary coexistence if we are to preserve the sort of cities, communities, and neighborhoods we want to live in, because offline retail isn’t just transaction, it’s interaction. As it turns out, some old-fashioned things (like snail mail vs. e-mail), just leave us feeling a bit more special and are worth keeping around.
Both online and offline fulfill a need and are both integral to our modern commercial marketplace, but one doesn’t usurp the other.
We’re also just awash in stuff. Period. Whether from online or offline, products are no longer scarce. It’s things like community, connection, and a sense of belonging that so many people feel they lack.
Offline retail, as long as consumption continues (which it will), provides in part that sense of community, venue for connection, and integration with the wider identity of any place.