Once a month I spend a morning having coffee and breakfast with my friend at her house — we’ve found it’s easier than trying to wrangle her toddler and infant into a restaurant and keep them entertained. Often this breakfast chat coincides with chores of some sort: laundry, dishes, or taking the garbage out. She’s a busy lady, always moving. On one such morning, I arrived just as she was unloading groceries from her car. I helped her carry them inside and began to unload food into her fridge and pantry.
There were multiple plastic grocery bags containing one item. A bunch of bananas alone in a bag. A box of oatmeal in its own bag. A loaf of bread, companionless in a bag. I looked at her incredulously. “Why would you do this?” I asked, holding the bananas in one hand and the empty bag in another.
“I didn’t,” she responded. “I order my groceries online from Walmart and pick them up at the store. They’re already bagged when I arrive.”
I stared angrily at the copious amounts of plastic bags piling up on the counter. As someone who cares about the environment, I was more than a little upset at the plastic waste I was seeing. I sat for a moment and stewed, thinking on how it was unlikely I would ever order groceries online after seeing this mess.
As I drove home that morning, I thought about how many times I’d received deliveries in superfluous packaging. How many times I’d had to send something back because it was damaged or didn’t fit. How many times I’d just been disappointed with the purchase in general, and realized that had I picked it up off a store shelf, I never would have bought it.
I remembered how many articles I’d read stating that brick and mortar was dead and we were now living in the age of e-commerce. While I certainly didn’t disagree that online shopping was on the rise and physical retailers had to adapt, the full parking lots surrounding the stores I passed declared that brick and mortar was definitely still alive and kicking.
Though online shopping has invaded nearly every industry, consumers still flock to retail stores. Why? Because e-commerce has yet to come up with a way to fulfil some very specific needs.
Online shopping is veritable smorgasbord of choice. We can choose what we want to buy, how we want to purchase it, how soon it’s delivered, and so on and so on. But there are some items that need to be seen (or smelled) in person before a transaction is made.
A good example would be produce.
Have you ever seen someone who just picks up produce and chucks it in the cart? Probably not. Most of us inspect our fruits and veggies very closely. We need to know how ripe they are, if they’re bruised or misshapen, and if they’re the right size to fit our meal plans. These are important factors that need to be carefully examined — and it’s a choice many of us are unlikely to trust to a third party. Though online delivery and prepared meal delivery kits are giving us options we didn’t have before, it’s doubtful they’ll change the way we shop for groceries entirely. There’s just too many variables to consider.
If there’s one thing e-commerce simply can’t offer that retail stores can, it’s the ability to interact with products. The TimeTrade 2017 State of Retail report found that 85 percent of shoppers like to touch a product before buying. It’s just human nature to want to see and feel things in person before buying them.
Furthermore, there are certain industries in particular that require a lot of hands-on interaction. Furniture, apparel, and cosmetics are almost bulletproof in the retail world. I rarely buy cosmetics online as I’m ridiculously pale and need to see colors in person to know if they will match my skin tone. Furniture has to be tested not only for comfort but to see if it’s going to be a magnet for my dogs’ fur. And one thing I absolutely cannot buy without trying on is a bra. There’s also the auto industry. You can’t properly test drive a car online. Perhaps that’s why 88 percent of people prefer to purchase a car in person.
Sometimes even same-day delivery isn’t fast enough. Whether you’ve been asked to pick up a bottle of wine on your way to the party, left buying Christmas gifts until the last moment, or just have to get your hands on the newest iPhone right now, there are times when we can’t wait for a package to be delivered. Let’s face it, impatience and procrastination alone are likely to keep the lights on at many brick-and-mortar stores for years to come.
Don’t get me wrong; I love online shopping. I have an Amazon Prime account purely for the free two-day shipping. There are many things I regularly purchase that I can only get via delivery. For me (and many others), the advent of e-commerce has been an absolute godsend. However, there are also things I only get at brick-and-mortar stores, and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.
Until such a time as e-commerce can deliver unlimited choice, a hands-on shopping experience, and instant gratification, there will always be room for brick-and-mortar retail.