Retailers Versus E-Tailers: Know Your Strong Suit

Over the next couple of years, retail and brick-and-mortar businesses will be compelled to look at their roots and find a new identity and purpose. The race for most retailers today is getting online. But underlying this functional compulsion is the fact that retailers are trying to compete with a competitor that, at any point, can offer services and products at a substantially cheaper price.

For most retailers, the focus has been on beating the online competition. But is this where retail should focus? Can retailers really compete with the Internet on price, product selection, and unlimited information? Isnt this a battle thats lost before its begun?

Retailers will have to rethink their focus and find answers by looking back in time. Back in the thirties and forties (so I hear), retail stores looked different and functioned differently than the way they do today. Every grocery item was carefully selected by the customer and handled by the grocer behind the counter. By the fifties, the first supermarket concept appeared, and this changed everything. What had been considered good, polite service was seen as slow, old-fashioned, and inefficient. The personal touch was suddenly perceived as being intrusive, and mom-and-pop businesses became synonymous with limited.

The change in perceptions and expectations of service that happened almost 40 years ago is similar to what is taking place today. Values that we appreciated in the past are disappearing in the desperate race for online success.

But no brick-and-mortar travel center, for example, can survive by focusing on price and selection; no bookstore can survive by competing against title selection; and no wine store can compete against price. The fact is, focusing on the wrong criteria is misguided and can make business exponentially more difficult.

The travel center has just as much future as it always did, but it needs to identify the features that differentiate its service from that of its online confreres. The opportunities for personal attention available to the brick-and-mortar client are incomparably greater than those enjoyed by the Internet consumer. My local travel center can offer me theme-based afternoons, for example, where a ski instructor can tell me about skiing conditions in the Swiss Alps, and an experienced climber can fill me in on the unique experiences Nepals mountains have to offer.

The bookstore can survive by hosting frequent author visits, signings, launches, lectures, and readings. A French chef and author can be invited to run a cooking demo and promote his title in-store. A friendly gardener would be thrilled to sign books with a muddy hand, offer some potting tips, and meet her interested readers.

And the wine store can survive by having tastings and inviting local and international sommeliers to visit and talk about their experiences with wines of the world. Winemakers might be prevailed upon to promote their products by chatting over an in-store tasting and discussing their part in the thousand-year-old history of winemaking.

If e-tailers tried competing in these people-contact events, the results would be as disastrous as retails misguided attempt to compete with e-tailing on price.

The more I work with clicks-and-mortar, the more I realize that success all comes down to knowing your strong suit and being the best at what youre good at. Retail is good at using all of our senses. The Internet is still restricted to appealing to two of the five. And I bet it will be a while before it can add just one more sense to its repertoire.

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