We’ve all heard the gloomy prognostications: The Internet is rendering traditional retail obsolete. Thanks to increasingly sophisticated e-com, from price-slashing powerhouses like Amazon to startups that mimic the social aspects of shopping (Svpply, for one), consumers have little incentive to waltz into a brick-and-mortar store—and companies have little incentive to keep paying those astronomical rents.
But let’s not slam the door on retail just yet. "Although digital channels may be better positioned to provide short-term transactional value, brick-and-mortar stores still give retailers the best space in which to establish long-term connections with customers," Ideo’s Dana Cho and Beau Trincia recently wrote in Rotman, the magazine of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. Put plainly, stores can be awesome advertisements for their brands, whether they’re selling 500 widgets a month or 5 million. Here are four ways how:
Design stores that are more than just convenient places to buy stuff.
Market research shows that the majority of consumers visit a store before they purchase a product, even if they ultimately buy it online. In other words: People still want to go to shops to try stuff out. Retailers can exploit that. By designing stores that emphasize casual browsing over quick, convenient transactions—atmosphere over a firing squad of registers—they can lure in people with no real intent to buy anything. Whether shoppers snap something up then or later—online or in-store—doesn’t really matter, so long as they’re hooked on the brand.
Hire "brand enthusiasts."
Social media has turned everyone into a critic, and, weirdly enough, we actually listen to each other. A recent survey found that almost eight out of 10 people trust peer reviews over any other source of information. So instead of spending billions of dollars to mold staff into perfect product experts—experts customers don’t listen to anyway—companies should hire what Cho and Trincia call "informed brand enthusiasts." These are people who genuinely care about the brand and use their passion to push its products. No matter if they don’t know whether your cashmere sweaters were made at a sixth-generation family-owned mill in Quarona, Italy, or a Chinese factory.
Target people who already own your product.
Like we said, consumers care about the opinion of other consumers. The happier you make your existing customers, the more likely they’ll spread the gospel, and the better off your brand. It makes sense, then, to cater brick-and-mortar stores to those precious tastemakers who already own your products. "By focusing on participation in the store—through education, trials and membership experiences rather than marketing, promotion and sales—retailers are positioning themselves for a longer-term, more open relationship with customers, helping them successfully evolve with the 21st century," the authors write. Apple is a great example.
Turn shops into R&D engines.
Shops still have one thing e-tail does not: face time with consumers. And face time is something brands can leverage to test new ideas—an experimental store, say, or a community space that doesn’t exist solely to hawk goods. In doing so, Cho and Trincia believe companies can gather valuable insight into the wants and needs of customers, which can then be incorporated into a larger branding strategy. Try squeezing that out of a 30-second transaction on PayPal.