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etailers open storefronts adding bricks to clicks

Let’s take this offline: E-tailers open storefronts, adding bricks to clicks

Online sellers open physical locations to engage customers and boost sales

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Founded in 2010 by four friends, Warby Parker burst onto the e-retail scene by offering boutique-quality prescription glasses at discount prices. With a hip, clever web site and a commitment to give away one pair of glasses for every pair sold, the privately owned company quickly became an online success story. Even its quirky annual reports, detailing the exploits of its employees, generate sales.

Last year, Warby Parker began to experiment with physical spaces by opening small showrooms, shop-in-shops and pop-ups across the country, going so far as to retrofit an old school bus into a traveling store. In New York City’s Soho neighborhood, its 2,000 square-foot flagship store has the look and feel of a classic public library, with high ceilings, rolling ladders and brass lamps.

Shoppers can schedule an eye exam with an in-house optometrist, pick up their glasses or get them in the mail, and even browse through a selection of books from small independent publishers.

“We believe the future of retail is at the intersection of e-commerce and bricks-and-mortar," Neil Blumenthal, one of Warby Parker's founders, told Inc. Magazine last year after opening its SoHo store. “It's about how can we create special moments. When you walk into the store, most people are really surprised, because it doesn't look like any place they have ever been that sells eye glasses."

Warby Parker is not alone. Online-only sales strategies may represent the ultimate in flexibility and cost cutting, but a growing number of web-only retailers are planting a stake in old fashioned, bricks and mortar storefronts to maximize their sales.

"It isn’t enough to have a purely bricks and mortar location, and we’re quickly finding out the same goes for a digital-only platform."

Lew Kornberg, Chicago Tenant Representation Lead for JLL Retail

“The virtual shopping game is changing. Even the most tech-savvy shoppers sometimes need to touch and feel the products they’re buying,” said Lew Kornberg, Chicago Tenant Representation Lead for JLL Retail. “It isn’t enough to have a purely bricks and mortar location, and we’re quickly finding out the same goes for a digital-only platform. The more touch points retailers can offer to shoppers the better.”

Fifteen years ago, online-only retailers didn’t exist. Today, more than 100,000 e-commerce retailers operate in the United States and e-commerce is growing exponentially. Still, online transactions only represent 6 percent of total retail sales, and while that number is set to double by 2020, bricks-and-mortar stores and showrooms remain not only relevant—but critical—to sales growth.

While retailers scramble to expand their web and mobile sites, and build strong logistics systems, e-tailers are clamoring for physical space. The benefits of a retail space can’t easily be replicated online, and the new online-offline stores have unique qualities to capture consumer’s attention.

Online jeweler Gemvara recently opened a temporary store on Boston’s Newbury Street to test the market. The interactive store allows consumers to configure jewelry using tablets and computers, and to have their purchases shipped directly to their homes. In the store, shoppers can receive expert advice from jewelry consultants; get a tutorial on gemstones, trends and jewelry care; and even receive a free set of stud earnings with any purchase.

Online-offline stores offer multiple benefits to consumers, JLL’s Kornberg said. “Shoppers get to try, see, taste, smell and feel the products in person, interact with sales staff and peers while they shop and get that immediate gratification of taking their purchases with them,” he said. “The stores become high-end showrooms, even though much of the shopping still takes place online.”

Bonobos.com was founded in 2007 to provide men with better fitting clothes and make shopping an easy and hassle-free experience. Last year, the e-tailer opened Guideshop, a one-on-one shopping environments designed to serve as a highly personalized extensions of Bonobos' online store.

"To actually be a brand you need to be in touch with people in three dimensions, not two, and you need to engage them with as many of the five senses as possible."

Michael Hirschfeld, senior vice president of JLL’s National Retail Tenant Services

Guideshop’s "guides" work with each customer during appointments, which typically take fewer than 45 minutes. The store accepts walk-ins, but suggests shoppers book appointments in advance. The space is inventory-free but offers a full display of merchandise and sizes to try on, shifting the focus to the customer instead of the product.

E-commerce makes sense, but striking a balance to connecting with customers has become critical for retailers’ competitiveness in today’s world. “Ecommerce makes sense in a world where everyone is busy and everyone is trying to find ‘time,’” said Michael Hirschfeld, senior vice president of JLL’s National Retail Tenant Services “To actually be a brand you need to be in touch with people in three dimensions, not two, and you need to engage them with as many of the five senses as possible.”

“There is no ‘buzz’ from an e-commerce experience. That is, unless your smartphone or laptop is shorting out…”


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