Getting into the swing of the online shopping experience right about now? It seems that you have to simply because for the past two months almost every “non-essential” retail outlet has been closed down due to the coronavirus. So like it or not, your computer/tablet/phone is your shopping outlet. But, pandemic or not, don’t be too surprised if online shopping will be how you will shop…forever!
A Little Retail History
I’m going to skip past Org and Thor exchanging animal furs for food and go right up to the world of America in the 1800’s to save a little time here.
Here’s a fact: Every 50 years or so, retailing undergoes some kind of change. Back in the 1800’s, before there were big cities and our country was growing, people shopped locally at the general store. Think “Little House on the Prairie” and you’ll be able to picture what it was like. It was one store that had just about everything, except what you really wanted. But then if they didn’t have what you wanted, you could always order it. However the big breakthrough came in the late 1880’s when “the catalog”—the Sears catalog which lasted well over 100 years and served everyone very well—arrived.
The Stores Your Parents and Grandparents Knew
The growth of big cities and the rise of railroad networks made possible the modern department store. The stores my parents grew up with and loved so much were not general stores anymore, and in every small and big city, a new entity, the department store was born. Every city had one, or even two or three. When my parents were growing up, the thing to do was to go “downtown” and shop at what was a giant multi-story building with names like Gimbels and Macy’s.
But things constantly change. The popularity and affordability of mass-produced automobiles after World War II saw the shopping mall popping up and it was all lined with specialty retailers which began dotting the newly forming suburbs. They were challenging the big city downtown stores and eventually, as you know, they won that war.
My Start in Retail
Someplace along the line there, as I grew of age in the early 1970’s, I got into the department store “game” and began my career starting out as an assistant buyer at Bamberger’s (a division of Macy’s), a NJ based department store. Bamberger’s grew over the next three decades to almost 30 suburban mall stores. That’s where I learned most of what I know about how buying and selling works and how I earned my living for over 30 years. But I saw the end of the traditional department stores coming even as early as the 1990’s and here’s why.
Specialty Retailers and Discounters
As early as the 1960’s and 1970’s, the spread of stores and discount chains like Walmart and Kmart began. How about these names from the past like J.M. Fields, Montgomery Ward, or Woolworth’s to name a few? All of them had big plans.
Soon after they came along, big-box “category killers” such as Circuit City and Home Depot began undermining and transforming the old-style mall. It’s funny though. Each wave of change doesn’t totally eliminate what came before it, but it does reshape the landscape and redefines consumer expectations. Often those changes make the scenario unrecognizable. Retailers relying on earlier formats either adapt or die out as the new ones pull volume from their stores and make whatever is left unprofitable.
That explains why over the past 20 or so years so many of “your” favorites and most familiar names have literally disappeared from the planet and these newer replacements have grown into the monsters that they are, like Walmart.
The Birth of Online Shopping
When I left the department stores, I went into the newer thriving specialty stores and even then I saw inevitable changes coming. It was around the end of the 1990’s that “online shopping” was something that looked like what Henry Ford had done when he rolled the first cars off the assembly line. You could see the future of retailing literally being born out of the world of computers even back then although I didn’t quite see Amazon because if I did I surely would be a multi-millionaire today.
Like most of the changes over the years in retailing, retail technology got off to a shaky start. A bevy of internet-based retailers in the 1990’s—Amazon.com, Pets.com, and pretty much everythingelse.com—embraced what they called online shopping or electronic commerce.
These baby companies ran wild until a combination of ill-conceived strategies, speculation, and a slowing economy burst their dot-com bubble. The burst of the bubble, known as the dot-com crash, lasted from March 11, 2000, to October 9, 2002 and during that crash, many online shopping companies failed and shut down. That collapse wiped out about half of all “e‑commerce” retailers of the time and created a new focus among them and a new economic reality.
So Will This Too Change?
Will digital retailing continue to grow? Won’t it peak sometime soon, or even implode the way it did the last time around?
I think you know the answer to these questions as well as I do. It’s not going away anytime soon and it’s become even more important than ever over the past couple months.
Anyone who has shopped online knows that the selection is vast and yet it is remarkably easy to shop. The scary thing is that it gets better all the time and adds even more ease and simplicity for the consumer.
They haven’t yet figured out how to get you to “feel” the comfort of an online mattress purchase yet, but I really believe they are working on it!
The Bottom Line
The prices are good and easily compared. It’s convenient: You can do it at home or at work, without using gasoline or fighting to park. About half of all online purchases are delivered free to U.S. consumers and that number is growing. Many returns are free as well. And of course in the current climate, it’s a way to avoid exposure to staff and other shoppers. Does online shopping sound like something that is going away soon?
But it gets even better. You can get tons of product reviews and recommendations about what you want to buy from other consumers easily. Because of all this, it’s not surprising that the average American Customer Satisfaction Index score for online retailers such as Amazon is way higher than the average for physical discount and department stores.
I am betting that even if you never thought about online shopping for groceries before March, you have by now and probably even tried it. In fact, so many have been doing it that they can’t keep up with the demand. But you probably already know that, don’t you?
As expected, customers are way out in front of this channel of shopping these days and many have grown up right along with it. The revolution has captured every mobile phone as they developed into smartphones connected to the internet. Add in another huge chunk of Americans using tablets such as the iPad. If you doubt whether consumers are ready for these technology driven retail solutions, try to find any “dumb” video display in a public location and look for fingerprints on the screen as evidence that people expected it to be an interactive touchscreen experience.
If traditional retailers hope to survive, they have to turn the one big feature that internet retailers lack (the touchy-feely assets) and turn that from a liability into an asset. Stores will continue to exist in the foreseeable future and they can be competitive.
Research shows that physical stores boost online purchases. Online and offline can be complementary. That explains why entities like Amazon are actually opening retail locations in over a dozen states and is growing. I guess there will always be some of us who want a touchy-feely thing no matter how much we like the “tech” experiences we get from our computers and phones.
Are you online “sold” or do you still want and yearn to browse at the mall? Do you miss the mall or do you just need to escape from your room due to “pandemic fever”?