With back-to-school being the second biggest season for retailers, the forecast for store activity looms bright. Trends the National Retail Federation shared touch on the return to stores and projected growth rates of 8.2% year over year this season.
The NRF cites a need to try on new sizes and consumers wanting to browse the latest fashions in person. Department stores continue their rebound after facing a multi-year back-to-school season decline. As a result, sales at department stores should grow 13% year over year, NRF says.
The store experience today is a topic I often wrestle with. It’s at the core of my 40-year retail career. I love stores after all these years and partake in my fair share of store shopping. Despite my bias, I wondered how others felt, so I reached out to my office network to see if anyone still shops at the physical store. After all, we are covering digital commerce. The answer among those who completed my survey was a resounding 100% yes, though, for a handful, it was admittedly only occasionally or rarely. And it was category-driven for most.
Of course, there were the usual suspects, like Verizon resellers (never fully explain costs of new phones and a calling plans) and many cited going to grocery stores (including Whole Foods and even a few local markets). Home improvement stores were mentioned frequently, along with visits to pet stores.
NRF projects back-to-school also means back to in-store shopping
It wasn’t surprising that the type of product being purchased factored into channel selection. Shoppers who were buying everything from complex products to expensive clothing expressed a preference for going to the store as touch and feel remains important under those circumstances.
“I rarely buy clothes, but I would at the store because I prefer to see/try them on before purchasing. Same for furniture.”
The consensus among this audience was that if something is easy, they’ll get it at a store, particularly if it’s a low-cost or larger item (for example, a bed frame, fan, or TV). Last-minute also played a role in selecting stores.
“In-store is to bring kids to pick out something in person, usually at Target. They sometimes prefer to shop the aisles unless it’s something specific we can only find online. I don’t typically go clothing shopping in-store unless I buy something on a whim, but they insist on picking their own sneakers.”
Target Corp. ranks No. 5 in Digital Commerce 360’s Top 1000 database. It ranks online retailers by web sales.
Retail therapy is real
There is something I called retail therapy, or “just browsing,” and several of our survey shoppers alluded to it. One went to the stores as she liked to try clothes on, needed a real shopping fix and wanted to get some in-person help. A second suggested they go to the store because walking around also triggers decorating ideas or helps them remember other items they may need. A third explained, “I also enjoy going to HomeGoods and Target if I need to get out of the house for a while.”
HomeGoods ranks No. 69 in the Top 1000, under parent company TJX Cos. Inc.
The store and the online experience are not mutually exclusive, and that is where omnichannel comes into play. I believe most shoppers are multi-channel, and convenience and choice benefit both shoppers and retailers in the long run. Industry research suggests the same. Nearly 40% of consumers make purchases inside a physical store at least once a week, compared to just 27% who do the same online, according to PwC’s annual consumer survey.
One channel does not refute the other. I, for one, can prep at home to ensure the trip will be worthwhile once I get there. That means inventory availability and a broad and accurate assortment.
Another respondent shared, “It’s hard to depict a poor shopping situation for me these days since most of my inventory and aisle checks are done via my phone, versus asking in person. Customer service seems to be shifting in the right direction as the need to ask a clerk for something my phone can’t do is shrinking. Lowe’s has good wayfinding with an app, and my store has helpful employees (I know that’s not always the case, though).”
The package deal: the ultimate retail shopping experience
The experience is the excitement, and part of the excitement is touch and feel. One suggested that it helps to gauge the quality of the fabric, such as the types of leather found in a handbag.
I ask myself what stores truly provide an experience. For me, that always includes Nike (No. 10 in the Top 1000). It also includes some luxury retailers where there’s no substitute for seeing the product up close and personal. Additionally, home stores provide an interesting environment in which to imagine the room settings in one’s own home. While many tools are available for simulating that experience online, there’s no substitute for sitting on that couch.
Several shared their experiences at independent bookstores.
“McNally Jackson Booksellers is a fairly new company here in NYC,” and a coworker says it’s consistently a lovely place to spend time. “There’s a cute coffee shop, lots of overstuffed chairs scattered through the store, etc.” I concurred, as I visited the Brooklyn location on a recent visit based on this recommendation.
Efficiency rules, shoppers need it fast and now
“The store sometimes can be fastest when I only need a few items, need to try on or need ASAP, or when I need something “last-minute” or for larger stuff (ex. bed frame, fan, TV). Last-minute gifts that cannot be delivered by the time I need them are also well-suited for store shopping.”
I have to say I like to go to the store. I can quickly peruse the assortment. Most of the time, I can find a good item in a matter of minutes. I was on the hunt for a casual black pair of linen pants. While I did Google it, I found it more efficient to walk a mile to one of my local shopping streets. I quickly circled Athleta, spotted several that could work and, in less than 15 minutes, was out the door with that and a handful of other coordinating pieces. Online would have simply been a guess and likely involved having to make returns. Athleta falls under parent company The Gap Inc., which is No. 19 in the Top 1000.
“Finally, I go to Nordstrom [No. 20 in the Top 1000] if we need something quicker,” one shopper emphasized. And it is often a go-to store for me as well. But this time, as I walked into the store, the first thing I saw was the hiring sign. I was hoping to make an internet return. Although it was quick, as no one was in the queue, I saw five or so employees huddled about. None of them seemed too concerned about taking care of the customer, which was unfortunate.
Several of my interviews alluded to the “now” factor, which means right now (less than an hour, not five-hour same-day delivery). Imagine it’s 8 a.m. and your kid lost their mitt for a 10 a.m. game, or you need a specific baking dish for a recipe you committed to making for a potluck dinner that night.
Technology can contribute positively to the store’s efficiency as well.
“The other day, I was in Target, waiting in line to check out, when a sales associate came up to me with a scanner. She was able to scan my items and check me out without my having to wait too long.”
The fundamentals still apply
Before diving into these, let’s consider what shoppers are looking for online, as detailed in our Digital Commerce 360 and Bizrate Insights survey of 1,033 online shoppers in January 2022. Free shipping continues to top the list, along with product availability, past experiences, and the right price. Nonetheless, shopping remains about the fundamentals.
Shoppers face issues with empty shelves, inconsistent inventory across the stores and items missing price tags. I’m not surprised that respondents mentioned not finding a good enough price. Inventory is the guts of shopping and elicited significant feedback. Shopper sentiments included, “Store shelves that are empty are not fun to look at or enough on the shelves for what I am looking for.”
“I don’t like going to hardware stores Home Depot and Lowe’s because it takes me forever to find what I need, usually a small item and I can never find staff. But positively, when I do, they are very helpful.”
The Home Depot Inc. ranks No. 4 in the Top 1000, and Lowe’s Cos. Inc. is No. 11.
Shoppers report issues with finding items. It’s challenging for many shoppers in stores with broad assortments and/or large store footprints to find what they need. Shoppers specifically cited department stores Macy’s, Kohl’s and JCPenney. Macy’s Inc. ranks No. 16 in the Top 1000, Kohl’s Corp. ranks No. 21, and J.C. Penney Co. Inc ranks No. 35.
Can’t buy what you can’t find
“Lately, it is hard to find ANYTHING in stores. Two distinct kinds of toothpastes, my facial moisturizer, low-fat cream cheese, baby shower cards — you name it. Seems like everything has been discontinued or is in short supply, and stores carry fewer brands. I’ve had to go online — usually to Amazon — more and more to find some necessities. It’s also slim pickings at apparel stores. From Old Navy to Nordstrom, I am just not finding anything.”
It’s no surprise that shoppers would go to Amazon, which is No. 1 in Digital Commerce 360’s Top 1000.
Information is in demand.
“Product details are either too skeletal or super overwhelming on the retailer and brand sites. And the same employee also was honest about what I needed to buy as a novice vs. what would be a wasted purchase without more advanced skills, which I appreciated.”
Customer service means exceptions are encouraged
I don’t know about you, but I spend a lot of time returning online purchases. Returns are a funny thing. While shopping is about the purchases, a positive return experience may linger in the shopper’s mind and bolster their loyalty.
Though I don’t typically mind it, for those of us who like to go to the store to get immediate credit, today’s gas prices make those trips a little less desirable. Sometimes, I may have a dozen orders going at once, so it could take a few hours there just to get those to all the stores.
Our Digital Commerce 360 and Bizrate Insights survey of 1,023 online shoppers in May 2021 indicates that online shoppers don’t like high fees associated with return shipping. They also noted that they dislike when it takes more than a week to get credit, along with return policies that are too restricted.
The exception factor may be driving store interest, and that’s exactly what I found out when my coworkers weighed in. There was mention among several individuals of the “exception” factor, maybe even getting something you don’t deserve. “Best Buy had bad service when I needed to return a TV that was broken when they sold it to me. They accused me of breaking it and threatened not to give me a refund until I escalated it to the store manager. In-store, you can escalate to a supervisor, whereas online you are much more anonymous.”
Best Buy Co. Inc. is No. 6 in the Top 1000.
So many of those who responded to the survey focused on buying in-store at home improvement stores and the exceptions that were made in the name of customer service. One story that stood out: “I ordered stain for my deck online at Home Depot. When it arrived, it didn’t look like it had been colored. It looked plain. Ironically, I called before I started the project and they could not help. Luckily, I realized it had not been colored, so I was able to take it to my local Home Depot and they added the color. My local Home Depot bailed out the online version on the mistake they made.”
I needed to make a visit to the store in Old Orchard, a mall I usually frequent to make a return. My daughter had purchased several bathing suits from Pac Sun (No. 600 in the Top 1000) and failed to make a timely return. Storefronts were shuttered, and restaurants had begun to take the place of retail stores. The store seemed like a tornado hit. Clothes were on the floor, and the racks looked like they hadn’t been straightened in days. The plus side was they didn’t penalize her for the late return. These store visits seem to have some benefits in this regard, as the sales associate controls the “override” button.
In the same vein, sometimes employees are willing to “break” the rules in store when shoppers need help with their exceptions. One shopper liked that at Joann (No. 266) stores, they combine coupons and use competitor coupons really easily in stores. That shopper noted that this is hard to do online.
A gentleman cited his JoS. A. Banks Clothiers experience where the “salesman was a pro and he honored online price with good grace.”
Stores simply must do better when it comes to people
But honestly, shopping at a store these days seems like a challenge. When I reflect on these back-to-school numbers predicted above, it makes me wonder who will take care of the customer. Many of the stores I visit, from department stores to specialty stores, are understaffed at best.
“To be honest, it can be a flip of a coin at these stores lately, though. It’s difficult to track down an associate to help you given the labor shortage. And when you do, sometimes they’re young high school/college kids just working a summer job. They’re not very knowledgeable about the store’s product selection and are unable to answer basic questions.”
My career began on the sales floor. We had training. It was a privilege to work retail and we enjoyed it. My daughter recently took a job at a high-end retailer in New York and unfortunately experienced the reverse scenario. It’s sad to me as she will never want to work retail, yet I still want to go back.
It’s as simple as what one individual shared: “Target employees make an effort to be helpful.” She is absolutely right. I know as I’m still shopping there 50 years later and always up for a Target run.
Knowledge matters and saves shoppers’ time
“It’s typically stores like Michaels (No. 115), Hobby Lobby (No. 297) and Joann where I go to pick up design and crafting items for showers, birthday parties, etc. that I’m helping to host. That’s largely because it’s important to color match and to get ideas from going up and down the aisles. Another respondent shared that a Michaels employee helped her figure out what cutting mats and other accessories were compatible with an expensive Cricut machine her sister just gifted her. Online, it’s hard to figure out how complicated equipment works.
Great stores mean making a connection with the customer. I enjoy conversing with a good associate and getting insight such as Sephora’s beauty advice. A coworker’s wife cited Paper Source, too, as they helped figure out some design and craft challenges with what’s available now in-store.
Store shopping may ultimately live or die by their people and their service.
The dressing room dilemma
We have long known that getting one’s size right online poses many problems. But what’s worse now is that shoppers who venture to the store do so as they hope to try it on, only to have issues with dressing rooms. One shopper summed it up like this: “In many stores, there is poor selection and empty shelves. The lines for checkout are long. I went into Macy’s to look for a dress, and many fitting rooms were closed and registers were closed. Left and went to Nordstrom.”
The reason many of us go to the store is, “I want to try something on, or see an item in-person prior to purchasing.” Another shopper piggybacked on that, as going shopping for one mom meant prom-dress shopping with her daughter. She was surprised by how many dressing rooms were closed.
But in-store, my own Athleta experience serves as a perfect example. Like many others, I’m often in between sizes. Online, I’d have to order two and return one, and that’s if I just wanted one color. This way, I could do a fast try-on and decide from there. The 25% off sale that extended through the day I went influenced me, so it was a bonus for me.
Over the past six months, I have visited three different Chicagoland Zara stores, and my experience was pretty much a similar disappointment. Limited dressing rooms available, few people able to assist the customers.
This week, when shopping in the Chicago Loop, I headed to the store to pick up a few things, as I am a fan of their products. Upon arrival and looking around, I could see that the line for checkout was 20-deep. Only three or four sales associates seemed to be working. I’ve been to other locations where only two people were manning the cash, with just a handful of others working in the stores. Worse yet was the line for the dressing room about 10-12 deep, and I had to hold multiple garments. There was barely a person who could take my clothes and hang them on the rolling racks until a room became available. God knows, a sales associate to assist a customer was certainly out of the question.
Shop local/shop small maintains its appeal
Our Digital Commerce 360 and Bizrate Insights survey of 1,041 shoppers during May 2021, found that 21% of respondents made a conscious effort to shop locally.
The reasons cited ranged from attentive customer service in small neighborhood stores.
“I also shop at little decorating boutiques and clothing boutiques in my town where another indicated that local mom & pop gift stores were also in the mix.”
On a recent Monday, the stores in my neighborhood had light traffic and appeared to have ample help. Perhaps the lesson here is location, location, location.
Taking care of customers means an ample inventory and sales associates who are available and knowledgeable about the products being sold. If retailers can keep their stores in order, they might have a fighting chance. Holiday sales will likely tell their story.
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