Offline Retail: Get Out of the Comfort Zone!

An open letter to all offline retailers on how to attract new customers in the face of online competition (if you’re not too tired for a pillow fight).

It’s a sunny afternoon and I’m on a business trip somewhere in Bavaria. As the phone rings, a local German radio station wants a short interview. ‘Tomorrow is the Day of Online Shopping …’, they say. ‘Did you proclaim it?’ I ask.  ‘No, it is a conference in Berlin. We want to report on it and would like to get a statement from you on what e-commerce means for physical retailers and how they can attract new customers’, explains the editor, and we arrange a second call later that day.

‘The Day of Online Shopping’ – I’m sitting in a small village overlooking beautiful Chiemsee with the snowy peaks of the Alps in the background, pondering sense and nonsense of this conference topic. What are the chances of an alternative ‘Day of Offline Shopping’ taking place? Would it get similar media attention? That seems rather unlikely.

Physical retail, after all, is just, well… there. The shops have always been there, in fact, and that’s precisely why too many of them have settled into their comfort zone. Some even expect to soon retire altogether. They are tired of pillow fighting.

Online Business Has No Comfort Zone

The growing online platforms know no comfort zones. They fight, advertise, innovate and develop, and mobilise millions (of customers, suppliers, goods, stocks, media contributions, employees). They represent nothing less than a creeping revolution in trading and, at the same time, nothing more than a simple redistribution of sales shares between market participants.

The pillow fight between online and offline retail is a fight no one needed. Emotionally speaking, it is also about the extermination of owner-managed and medium-sized retail next door. And it’s about the quality of place-bound interaction between people. In this sense, every single shop used to be its own local platform. Too many give up this valuable role all too lightly today. They no longer inspire their customers, they are stuck with running rather boring stores. They have fallen asleep and cultivated dreams of the past, dreams of better times. In this battle, individual retailers seem to yield without much resistance.

Illustration: Attract new customers


My personal reading recommendation for frustrated and indifferent offline retailers would be ‘The Machine Stops‘, written by E.M. Forster in 1909 (!), to find an early expression of their beloved end time scenario.

Offline Stores Have a Historic Opportunity

Where customers raptly flattened their noses on fascinating store windows decades ago, today they flash shopping apps on their smartphones. We won’t reverse this trend anytime soon, or likely ever.

  • We got used to the fact that the onliners provide us with the desired product the moment we think about buying it, with free shipping, a choice of options, and with lifelong return policy …
  • We order the cool coat of the cool guy in the TV show live during the broadcast via the remote control of our Smart TV’s with one click – knowing that it’ll wait for us in the office the next morning …
  • And we’re are tired of constantly hunting for the cheapest online offer, spending sleepless nights or office days in front of displays searching for it – always in fear of having missed the real bargain …

After all that, at last, a new era of offline trading has arrived. Brick-and-mortar retail has a historic opportunity to excite and win back customers. And that opportunity has arrived in time to inspire the display generation to occasionally raise their heads, look around and discover that the true culture, missed inspiration and fun of impulse shopping lie right in front of them: in the city, the district, the street.

And they will be open to explore exciting, well-designed shops, with assortments that are suitable for them and individually designed, taking their lifestyles into account.

Picture: Attract new customers


Get Up and Throw Your Own Pillows Back!

The condition for a successful therapy in the inspiration of digitized customers is, of course, that offline retailers participate. That they show up and fight instead of complaining about others, and that stores begin to reinvent themselves.

Shops have to leave their former role as stockists of interchangeable products and leave that one to the logistics centres of others. Instead, it’s important to reflect on and develop trust in their exclusive strengths: to inspire and accompany customers, to surprise them with personal relationships and the fascination of inspiring spaces. This is their old and new territory, and the virtual competition (still) lacks dramatically in this department. Retailers, as the Beastie Boys proclaim since 1986, ‘(You gotta) Fight for your right (to Party)’.

By investing in their individual identity, offline retailers can overcome their trauma and take a deep breath. That is, until the next episode of the drama begins: the day when a former online pure player opens their first truly innovative store next door, omnichannel solutions included.

These were my thoughts on the shore of Bavarian Chiemsee when the phone rang again. The radio interview was broadcasted the following day at 7.45 a.m. They sent me an mp3-version, and it lasted all of 20 seconds.

About the author

Alexander has been working in lifestyle retail all his life. He is regularly booked as a keynote speaker about inspiring store concepts and the urgently needed transformation in offline retail. You can reach Alexander to discuss your own ideas on how to attract new customers via his LinkedIn-Account.

(Top illustration: Wikicommons)

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