When I saw the headline I laughed out loud. It read “The Future of e-Commerce is Offline.”
Now wait a minute … haven’t we been told for the past two decades that the future of retailing was online? That in the future there would be no bricks-and-mortar stores, just websites? Well, it appears as though that tune is changing. Now, it seems, companies that built their businesses online must have physical locations to grow. Antique dealers are smiling, because we never abandoned bricks-and-mortar stores in the first place. Although many Mom-and-Pop dealers have added online selling as a distribution channel, few surrendered their physical stores in the process.
The company that led the charge away from traditional retail stores – Amazon – is now leading the charge back to Main Street. In November 2015, Amazon opened a small bricks-and-mortar store in Seattle. The inventory offered there was limited to the highest-rated and best-selling products that Amazon sold online to their Seattle-area customers. The “physical retail” project must have gone well, because in February 2016, Amazon announced plans to open “hundreds” of new stores.
Some former “online only” retailers – notably menswear sellers Bonobo and Paul Evans – have also opened small offline stores. Retail gurus are calling this concept “guideshops”. Their purpose is to enable consumers to shop at a retailer’s offline store, be waited on by knowledgeable salespeople, order a product in-store and have it shipped directly to their home.
Is this a great new way to do business? I don’t think so; this concept used to be called “the Sears catalog,” commonly found at the catalog desk inside a Sears store. What was old is new again.
Considered together, the “newish” concept of guideshops combined with the old concept of bricks-and-mortar stores tells us one thing: Consumers like the convenience of online shopping, but still want the experience of traditional shopping. For many, shopping is a recreational activity; it’s almost a national pastime. Getting out-and-about, moving around, engaging with people, having lunch and so on, is much more satisfying than being immersed in a web browser for hours.
That consumers demand a shopping experience which is more emotionally satisfying than online shopping was discussed at length eighteen years ago by B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore in their book “The Experience Economy”.
An experience economy, according to Pine and Gilmore, is next in the sequence of agrarian economy, industrial economy and service economy. The authors argue that in an experience economy, businesses must orchestrate memorable events for their customers to keep them coming back.
The mandate for antique dealers, then, is to provide the sort of memorable experience that customers can’t get online. A recent trend report by TrafSys.com titled “Why Personalized Retail is the Future of Brick-and-Mortar Stores” states “changes in culture have resulted in a shift in consumer expectations. For retail stores and other public places, they want an experience, rather than an explanation. Think of it this way: Consumers don’t need to make the trip to a retail store. They can find just about anything they need online. Retailers have to make them want to (shop in their store).”
What do antique store owners have to do to promote a satisfying and unique shopping experience for their customers? Not as much as you might think. It’s not necessary to put on a show or sing a song to your customers as they enter your store (not yet, anyway). Only two things are needed: connect with your customers emotionally, and build trust. If you connect on those levels you will make a sale; you will “sell” a customer on your store even if you don’t make the cash register ring. You will build your customer base. Visitors who emotionally connect with your goods and service will be back, and they will eventually buy from you. The experience of shopping in your store will be emotionally satisfying.
How do you connect emotionally and build trust? That part is easy. Antique stores have a “leg up” on consumer goods retailers. Antiques and collectibles naturally lend themselves to storytelling and nostalgia, both of which connect emotionally with customers. It’s much harder to get a customer to connect emotionally with a pair of blue jeans or a set of tires.
Of course, your sales associates must actually make an effort for this to work. If your customers are allowed to wander around your store and browse with no engagement from your staff, you might as well close your store and move into an antique mall. Antique malls are designed for “show and tell.” If you own a store, your strategy should be “show and sell.”
A customer should become absorbed into your store environment from the minute they walk through your door. First impressions count, even more so than with a website. Your store should be well-lit, smell good (or at least not musty-bad), have appropriate background music, good traffic flow and lots of attractive well-placed signage.
Associates should be attentive and well groomed. Casual attire is fine, but it must be tasteful and credible; a good rule-of-thumb is that employees must dress a step above how your customers will likely be dressed.
Customers should be acknowledged immediately, engaged, their status and needs determined, and a “tour” given. Then, unless their need is certain, they should be left to roam until they “land” on something, at which time the associate should re-engage. For example, some opening questions might be (adapted to your own style):
“Hi, folks; welcome to (your store). Is this your first time in, or have you been here before? Do you live in the area or are you just visiting? What brings you in today; do you have something specific in mind, or are you just browsing?” (Stating “just browsing” pre-empts their inevitable “just looking” statement and puts you ahead of the sales curve).
“Well we’re glad you came in. Take your time and look around; I’ll check back with you shortly. You’ll find the sale items on the back table, glassware along the right wall (tell them the layout of your store. The direction they choose to go may tell you the type of item they are most interested in).”
The flow of the above questions pulls the customer into your store environment and builds trust. The general order is important, but can be adapted to your personal style. Remember, it’s: greet, build rapport, establish the reason for their visit, offer a verbal tour, observe, engage, encourage, negotiate, sell. Don’t begin by skipping to the end of the sequence (“my prices are negotiable”) or finish with what you should have opened with (“thanks for coming in,” as they walk out the door). If you do, you’ve done nothing to earn their trust and you’ll probably never see them again.
While the customer is browsing, pay attention to what they are doing. Look for an opportunity to engage them: Tell a story about an item of interest (history, how it was used, why it was invented, etc.), or encourage them to tell you about an item that they “used to have when they were a kid.” At this point you are still building rapport and trust. Don’t try to shove a sale down their throat or you’ll lose them forever.
At the appropriate time, negotiate a sale. When you make a sale, give them something extra like a discount coupon for their next visit or some such thing. If you didn’t make a sale, give them something extra anyway; they’ll be more likely to return.
In the 21st century, economic power at the retail level lies with the customer. Competition is fierce, both online and offline. Differentiate your store from all others by providing customers with a memorable shopping experience.
Previously published in Antique Trader Magazine