Thursday, September 10, 2015

Virtual Stores

With the semi-recent closure of Future Shops everywhere (guess I can't return those headphones I bought two years ago), I started to think about the way people view the act of shopping in our increasingly virtually-driven world. Where once, physically travelling to a store was the only way to find, understand, and purchase an item, we can now do all of that more easily online. And we can do it in our underwear (always a plus). So that only leaves one missing piece, the tactile experience.

Personally, I am still not very comfortable buying things online because the tactile experience of an object is very important to me. I have to know how something looks and feels up close, otherwise I won't feel comfortable making a purchase. I know a lot of people share my opinion when it comes to clothing (how will I really know that this monokini is true to size?), but I am even more picky than that. I happen to have a rather small head (it's good to know your body), which means I have a hard time finding a pair of glasses that fit without sliding down my nose.

Now enters Clearly Contacts, an online store for glasses. They allow you to upload a picture of yourself to see how your face will look with all of their many styles of frames, but how can I purchase something so important without knowing how it will feel on my face? You may know that Clearly Contacts once offered the famous 'first pair free' frames promotion for new customers. I was eager to get a stylish set of frames for just under $40 (with shipping and anti-glare – that's how they get you), but I simply wasn't comfortable making the purchase without trying them on.

And then, Clearly Contacts opened a brick-and-mortar store on Queen Street West. Among the hustle and bustle of record stores, tattoo shops, and vintage clothing basements, I could now walk into the store and try on all the glasses to my heart's content. Which I did. But the catch was this: the first pair free promotion was only available online. So I was forced to use the tactic that so many people these days use: I tried on the glasses, made a selection, and then went home and bought my chosen frames online. I used the store like a showroom.

These days, I have noticed that a lot of people shop that way. They go into a store to get a physical feel of the product they want to buy, maybe comparing some models if the store is well-stocked, and then go home to find a better deal online.

With the advent of the internet, so many of our daily routines have changed. I'd venture to say that some of these stores that have closed because of this change might have saved themselves if they had gone with the flow instead of resisting. For example, I get the feeling that Clearly Contacts opened brick-and-mortar stores simply to get people to feel more comfortable buying their glasses, through any means. I think their marketers knew that opening a store would drive sales, even if those sales were online. By making it possible for consumers to test out their product in a real store, they were able to create even more brand loyalty online.

I wonder if Future Shop would have survived if their marketers had tried a showroom approach. There are certainly more benefits to this kind of business model than meets the eye. The costs associated with shipping products to stores would reduce considerably, as all merchandise would be shipped from warehouses directly to the consumer (like Amazon). There would (hopefully) be less packaging in the products themselves, because that 'store model' is the only one that needs to look attractive to consumers. And while we're on the subject of the showroom itself, pretty much every store could stand to reduce its land area by at least half. With a quantity of only one for every product, there would be no need for a backroom, or even as many staff to man the huge showroom floor.

And if marketers are really smart, they would offer free WiFi to allow customers to make purchases from inside the store. So, although many processes are becoming more and more digital, the human need for tactile connection to the items we purchase will never die out. There will always be a need for physical storefronts, even if they don't actually sell anything.

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