Brick and mortar shops are competing with a fierce opponent: the internet. It’s hard to beat the convenience of a shopping experience that simply involves scrolling and clicking. However, brick and mortar stores have some things that online shopping cannot provide: one-on-one relationships, human interaction, and the incomparable experience of engaging the senses.
Although some brands are closing their physical stores and moving solely online, many smaller, independent retailers are not only surviving, but thriving thanks to their increased focus on customer service, bringing in unique items, and giving shoppers a pleasant, in-person experience.
Engaging the Senses
Dr. Maura Krushinski has worked hard to create a welcoming environment for her customers at The Irish Design Center, a beloved 40-year-old Irish-themed specialty store located in the heart of the Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood, centered between two universities. Krushinski, who is a psychologist by trade and founder of the Pittsburgh Irish Festival, jumped at the opportunity to purchase the store when it came up for sale a year-and-a-half ago. Before she purchased it however, she had to ask herself how brick and mortar could still be viable during the internet era.
“First, we have a wonderful location in a pretty cultural location of Oakland; it has been here a long time and is well known. The challenge has been how to get people excited about things from Ireland if they are not from Ireland,” she said.
Krushinski has met that challenge by continuing to stock items that will appeal not just to an Irish heart, but also to those customers who appreciate the beauty of Irish merchandise and culture. “What has been a very interesting surprise is the items coming out of Ireland are amazingly beautiful, from clothing to jewelry and art. We’re not spilling shamrocks, but there is a lot of richness and symbolism with the quality of everything we bring in,” she said.
Her second challenge was to create an experience for in-store customers, as the younger shopping demographic is coming of age in an era of e-commerce. “The pendulum has swung in the direction of online shopping because people are busy and it is convenient. But now, with this upcoming generation of shoppers, they’re very excited about the novelty of being in a shop,” said Krushinski.
She said that on average, customers spend about 20 minutes in her shop, and from entry to exit, she aims to give them a sensory experience, starting with taste: the teapot is always on, and she always has a ‘taste of Ireland’ on the table that customers can sample as they shop.
“They can touch it and smell it and see it and taste it and hear it. Right now, the music is playing, the water is boiling, we also have hot chocolate from Ireland on the menu, we’re tasting Irish candy infused with whiskey, they can smell the perfumes and the soaps, and people love to touch the linens and the wool; so there’s a lot to do here in the shop,” she said. And that journey of the senses is an experience that cannot be replicated online. In the fall, she plans to add a monthly Saturday Irish story hour and to elaborate on their Irish food offerings with the addition of a very small café.
Amanda Dawe, owner of The Natural Emporium in St. John’s, Newfoundland, serves the conscious living community with a wide selection of eco-friendly products, metaphysical products, and the like. Despite the explosion of the World Wide Web, Dawe has not experienced difficulty in competing with major stores or brands. “We offer unique products that are not available with bigger stores. We have a little something that can interest a range of customers. Customers come to talk and spend time in the pleasant atmosphere,” she said. Indeed, her shop’s website alludes to wanting to create an “Emporium of Kindness,” both in the products that they sell and in the service they give to customers.
Dawe said that when major brands close their physical stores, it could potentially result in more business for the smaller, independent stores. “When people are out for a shopping day, they are not necessarily thinking about online shopping at that moment,” she said. Plus, “we also aim to have unique items and often group our products in interesting themes.”
“It has been important for us to establish a retail store that does not just sell goods, but offers a wonderful experience for the customer as well,” she added.
Stumble and Relish is located in a quirky, artsy area of Evanston, a college town just north of Chicago. Jaime Leonardi, who co-owns the shop with her mother, carries goods from small artisans, including jewelry, general gifts, items for men and babies, and a section featuring local city pride items. Leonardi doesn’t see the big box stores or online stores as her competition, but rather she’s up against other small bricks and mortars. She explained that her customers are people who shop on Etsy. “They love the handmade aspect, but they can see it in person,” she said. The ability to offer a tactile experience coupled with having something giftwrapped for free is appealing, as well as regularly bringing in new goods and artists. “To me, our store is the Etsy you can come in and touch and feel; you can’t do that online,” she said.
Despite the desire to draw in customers, several shops interviewed are considering having at least a small e-commerce presence. Krushinski said that she is considering doing so, but only after focusing on the physical store and making sure loyal customers know that the original owner’s vision of the store is still present.
“We do want to be full-service, but it’s an interesting challenge. I’m not sure we can get everything we offer online, but we do ship and have people call us because they’ve seen something online and they’ve asked us to get it for them. At some point, we might offer some choice items that people can get online because we want to respond to folks who are not in Pittsburgh,” she said.
Leonardi does sell some of her bestselling items online, as well as some one-of-a-kind pieces, but the online customers are usually those who have visited the store.
Even though Dawe does not plan to sell her merchandise online, she nonetheless makes use of social media by posting daily on Instagram and Facebook with light, uplifting and positive messages. “Our general target demographic is both female and male, aged 20+, shopping for items to enhance their intuition, bring mindfulness and peace. I do not feel this has changed due to e-commerce stores,” said Dawe. Another way they attract millennials is by carrying a variety of vegan/cruelty free product and natural/organic products.
Krushinski also relies on social media as well as print ads, but for her store, long entrenched in the community, word-of-mouth is powerful.
It’s That Personal Touch
Keeping your store relevant, updating items and keying into customers’ needs is essential to draw foot traffic into your shop. Krushinski added that it’s important to keep your items moving, so that every time customers come in, the shop, and the merchandise, is a little different, while still offering old favorites.
Still, perhaps the most fundamental ingredient of all is developing relationships with customers; after all, the Internet can’t strike up a two-way conversation with shoppers and make them feel welcome. “I feel it is the personal touch that makes our store unique,” said Dawe. “Our customers have become like family.”
Leonardi said that customers are drawn into her store for a few reasons. “One is, our core customers are people who live in the neighborhood, people who have lived here for a long time; part of the draws sharing a personal connection in your town and being able to find something special right down the street,” she said. The other draw, she continued, is that it is a transient town, and people who travel in for business or for Northwestern University are interested in checking out a unique store, something that they don’t have in their own hometowns.
Plus, added, Leonardi, she tries to give back to the community by supporting various causes, such as holding trunk shows or fundraisers that benefit local schools or animal rescues. “This will get someone off the couch on a Thursday night if we’re doing a giveback that means something to them. I do feel like it’s a nice connection and motivates people to come to the show.That kind of thing really can’t be replicated online,” she said.
Gift shop owners maintain belief that the in-person shopping experience outweighs the ease of online purchasing. “People really do want to go somewhere where their name is known. Any business will thrive if people feel good when they come in,” said Krushinski. Dawe agreed, adding, “We aim to have customers feel uplifted when they leave the store.”