Once upon a time there was a brick and mortar stationery shop in nearly every city in America, and more in the larger cities. Today, you have to look far and wide to find a location that carries quality paper, pens, and other high-end writing products. Even specialty chains like Hallmark have found it hard to compete, dropping from over 5,000 stores to just over 2,000 in less than a decade.
The Internet changed things; nobody denies this. What is in question is whether or not the change was for the better. Is digital everything the wave of the future? Are analog methods of communication as archaic as the quill pen or papyrus? Do brick and mortar stores have a place in the digital world?
Surprisingly, the largest digital marketplaces and suppliers in the world are giving us the answers to these questions, and it’s likely not what you think. Digital is going to be an important part of the future, but it will not be the end of paper and pen. Internet stores will continue to grow, but they will not fully replace physical locations. In fact, Ebay, Amazon, and Google are all expanding their presence in the physical store marketplace. Apple has already set the bar high with its highly interactive and innovative brick and mortar, virtual-store hybrid.]
Why the interest in the physical marketplace? Recent research has suggested that people spend more money in physical stores, especially if they have used the Internet to do their research on the products first. Additionally, today’s consumers are more demanding than ever before. Customers no longer “just” want a physical location, they also don’t “just” want a virtual store. Today’s tech savvy and discerning consumers demand a seamless shopping experience that gives them the research and comparison tools of the Internet, with the tactile experiences of the in-store experience. They also want to deal with real people who can speak intelligently about real products.
Consider these reasons for a customer to choose a virtual store backed up with a physical location.
• Customer service. When employees are hired to work in a physical location, they become familiar with the products. The products are not just pictures on a website that may never have been seen or touched by the agent. This familiarity provides the employee with knowledge that goes beyond a product description from a catalogue.
Further, employees at a physical store or plant are often chosen for their customer service potential and not their ability to fill orders off the Internet. The very purpose of the employee makes a marked difference in consumer happiness. In a world where automation and lack of customer service have become the norm, many customers (especially those who are buying high-end stationery or finery for a special occasion) are seeking exceptional service. This is rarely found in Internet-only stores.
• Training. Too many times in Internet-only stores, products are added to a webpage, but the person or the service agent on the other end of your phone is not sure what you are talking about. The web administrator did not talk to the sales staff or the customer service agents. Often, these personnel are not even in the same location.
When a virtual store is backed up by a physical location, however, the employees receive training on new products. Changes in ordering, sales, processes, and products are part of standard employee training. When the products are manufactured by the company, the employees have an even greater in-depth understanding of the products, services, and company expectations of quality.
• Awareness. Many virtual stores have no idea who their customers are, what they want, or what they need. The marketing staff lists and posts a wide variety of goods of varied quality and tosses around huge discounts to draw in business from whomever might be in the market for one of their many wares.
In contrast, the virtual store rooted in a physical location has to be keenly aware of their customers. They cannot afford to be creating, stocking, or manufacturing goods that are not going to move. This means that they are connected with their communities, local and online, and serve carefully-targeted markets. These businesses are highly motivated to provide the goods, services, and experiences that their clients desire.
• Community. Brick and mortar locations are filled with real people who are part of their local communities. This means that when the business does well, the people do well. If nobody visits a website, company profits may fall, but how many people in the local communities are affected?
When the community is tied into the success of a business, you are likely to find greater quality, a sense of purpose, and a loyal consumer market. Customers who join this loyal community through a virtual store are welcomed into the brick and mortar online family and will likely find service that brings them back time and time again.
• Delivery. When products need to be shipped from overseas, the lag time can be great. When products are advertised, but not in stock, the lag time may be great.
When you deal with a local store or manufacturer, you have the significant advantage of working with the people who have real products and stock to sell. Manufacturers can also drop ship the items for you, which saves even more time and money.