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Brick-and-mortar retailers: Sell more than just stuff

With over 300 retailers declaring bankruptcy so far this year, many are wondering if this is the beginning of the end of brick-and-mortar stores.

Beata Rycharski, Slalom retail expert, explains why this isn’t the case—if brick-and-mortar stores offer more than products.

The retail landscape is changing fast. Online sales are growing by double digits, and brick-and-mortar stores are dead. Right? Wrong. Amazon recently acquired a pure brick-and-mortar grocery chain and is experimenting with several physical store concepts. Nordstrom is doubling down on its physical presence by opening its biggest store yet in Manhattan. And while some retailers are reducing their physical footprint, most haven’t divested in their stores.

Many retailers are improving their store experiences an inch at a time. But what they need to do is reimagine the mission of their stores and transform the in-store shopping experience to offer something unique that can’t be easily achieved online. Here’s how to do it.

Experience over product

For most brick-and-mortar retailers today, product selection and product placement is king. They strategize how and where to display products—in the store window, near the entrance, and in the high-traffic lanes. But focusing solely on the functional aspects of selling a product isn’t the right approach.

Here’s why: When shopping online, consumers have increasingly friendlier and more sophisticated tools to find the products they’re interested in. Algorithms present personalized recommendations, relevant alternatives, user reviews, virtual tours, and even interactive tools to help them visualize purchases in their homes. Add free shipping, no checkout lines, and friendly return policies; physical stores won’t be able to keep up if their big focus is just product placement.

Retail stores need to do more to invite customers in, help them connect, and make them feel like they’re visiting an old friend that knows their favorite drink.

Retailers need to transform their brick-and-mortar stores beyond focusing on the functional benefits of selling a product and create destinations that entertain, inspire, and offer other intangible benefits. Stores need to be a place customers want to go simply because they enjoy the experience. It can be an oasis of calm and beauty in the shopping mall jungle (i.e., Apple or Restoration Hardware), a place they can learn something new (rock climbing at REI or cooking demos at Sur La Table), or a place they can relax and indulge (drinking a glass of champagne while getting their nails done at Nordstrom Local). These are unique experiences that customers can’t get with the click of a button.

Emotional, not just functional

Brick-and-mortar retailers have to ask themselves, What does our brand stand for? What do we want a customer to feel when she walks into our store? Will she connect emotionally with our higher purpose, a shared set of values, an aspirational goal? Stores must be an authentic and powerful expression of a brand.

Patagonia stores offer me a chance to repair or recycle my used clothing and gear, and at some locations, I can buy used clothing via a trade-in program. When I shop there, I’m pursuing my passion for getting out into the wild, declaring what I stand for, and doing something good for the planet. I go to Patagonia stores because I like their products—but also because I identify with and support Patagonia's mission of sustainability and preserving our wild places.

Brick-and-mortar retailers need to transform the store experience into an interaction that makes a rich, meaningful, and lasting emotional impression on customers. Customers have many choices of products to buy—often an overwhelming amount. But stores can stand out by capturing customers’ imaginations and connecting with them on a shared vision. Where better to do this than when they walk by the street window and into the store?

store patagonia

Connection over anonymous promotions

All humans crave connection, and we like to feel special. When I walk into a Starbucks, I’m among my people—coffee people—where the baristas want to know my name (and creatively misspell it every time) and where I bump into the same people every day. Whether I'm in downtown Seattle or in the Shanghai airport, I feel a sense of familiarity and belonging when I walk into a Starbucks.

When a brand creates a sense of community—like a running store that hosts regular running events, or a brand of Scotch that gives its “friends” a square-foot plot in the peat field to call their own—it drives connection with customers by providing an intangible benefit of belonging. Home Depot does this well, by offering reserved parking and offers specific to what members shop for most, as part of its Pro Rewards program.

When a brand creates a sense of community…it drives connection with customers by providing an intangible benefit of belonging.

Retail stores need to do more to invite customers in, help them connect, and make them feel like they’re visiting an old friend that knows their favorite drink. They can create and nurture this sense of community by offering classes, happy hours, trunk shows, guest artists/speakers, or even just creating an inviting space for people to mingle and linger for a while.

To create meaningful experiences, retailers need to have an intimate (but not intrusive) knowledge of their customers—not only what they buy and where they buy it, but who they are, how they spend their time, what they believe in, and who they aspire to be.

Change and opportunity

The reasons customers visit brick-and-mortar stores are changing—and with this change comes an opportunity for retailers to think of new, unique ways to deliver their company’s mission to customers in-person. By doing this, they can transform their brick-and-mortar stores into inspired, fun, community-based destinations that draw customers in—and keep them coming back.

This blog post was originally published on LinkedIn Pulse.