When I go talk to brick-and-mortar retailers or give a seminar at an industry event, I always hear about one topic: The internet.
"The internet is killing my business," they say. "It's not like it used to be."
Many are frustrated. "The consumer comes in, I test their water and they leave to buy online," they say.
Some retailers talk to me about showrooming, or the consumer practice of visiting a brick-and-mortar retail store to see, feel and touch the product before buying it online at a lower price.
I know both these subjects are scary. But before you get too alarmed, I want to stress that specialty retailers have been in similar situations before.
In 1894, Richard Sears' catalog declared itself the "Book of Bargains: A Money Saver for Everyone," and the "Cheapest Supply House on Earth." In fact, he boasted that his prices were so low, "we can't afford to lose a customer."
The Sears catalog had something for everyone, from apparel and jewelry to sewing machines, sporting goods, musical instruments, bikes and more.
In retail, this was a major game changer. It was the internet of its day. Brick-and-mortar storeowners everywhere were up in arms — customers were coming in armed with a Sears catalog, prepared to use it to negotiate a better deal. Consumers now had a leg up on retailers, who either had to come down on their prices or see their customers buy the same products from Sears for a lesser price.
Panic among retailers was so bad, in fact, that newspapers prophesied the Sears and Roebuck catalog would force every brick-and-mortar retailer to close within the decade.
Does this sound familiar?
These retailers saw that in order to survive, they needed to adapt. They started by shifting their product offerings to focus on what their customers wanted most. They began producing catalogs and flyers similar to Sears, and started using direct mail to target their customers like never before. In fact, many took a page from Sears' playbook and started to offer free delivery.
Remember, this was the late 1800's. We know how that story ended: Local merchants expanded and Sears and Roebuck did not end retail as we know it. Instead, they are credited for changing it.
Of course, that wasn't the only shakeup in the history of retail. In 1962, the top three mass merchants (Walmart, Kmart and Target) all incorporated; TJ Maxx, Kohls and Safeway stores were also incorporated that same year. Once again the media declared these stores would end specialty retail, and once again, retail didn't disappear — it changed.
In 1986, QVC hit the airwaves, presenting an entirely new approach to retailing. "Wait, I can sit in the privacy of my own home, watch TV, call in and order something? Wait, 10,000 have been sold in 10 minutes and I only have one minute to call in to get mine before they're sold out?"
They were (and still are) masters at product demonstration, pitches and creating value and urgency. And because this wasn't a static catalog, you could actually see the product be demonstrated — and other people were buying it, so it must be good, right? This movement spawned infomercials and the "as seen on TV" products we know and love.
Which brings us to today's rise of internet retailing. As with anything in life, there is an upside and a downside, a yin and a yang. While showrooming may be a downside for retailers, there's a phenomenon called "webrooming" that actually benefits retailers.
Webrooming is the practice of researching items online and then purchasing them in-store; it's the exact opposite of showrooming.
Despite the hype that showrooming has received as of late, webrooming has actually seen greater momentum in recent years. You may be surprised to learn that while 73 percent of shoppers have showroomed in the past six months, 88 percent have been webrooming.
Both webrooming and showrooming point to the new retail norm: Customers want to be able to shop across many different retail channels as easily as possible. Online retail, and especially mobile retail options, are influencing their purchasing decisions.
As history has shown, you as a specialty retailer need to adapt to meet this new normal or risk the consequences — evolve and flourish, or stay the same and perish.
Brick-and-mortar retail is all about an experience. Going to a store is the only way we can see, feel, touch and experience the products and services we are about the purchase. Major online retailers like Amazon understand this, which is why they're starting to open physical retail locations.
Why would an online giant move back into brick-and-mortar? Because they know many consumers find the convenience of e-commerce isn't really worth it. A study by Business News Daily found nearly 75 percent of respondents would rather visit a store to buy an item they've researched online because they don't want to pay for shipping or don't want to wait for delivery. In fact, 37 percent said they liked the option of returning the item in-store rather than having to ship it back. This is a major victory for brick-and-mortar retail!
So how can specialty pool retailers take advantage of webrooming to bring customers back into their stores? The answer lies in an omnichannel approach to retail.
Consumers want a unified approach across all channels. They want the ability to go into a store and see, touch and experience the products and services you provide as well as get friendly advice from knowledgeable sales people. In addition, these consumers want to go online, conduct research, identify products they want and even shop on your website — best case scenario, they can order online and have their products shipped to their house or their nearby store.
Not sure where to start? Of all the sales channels available, mobile should be your biggest focus. Recent studies have indicated that 80 percent of local searches were conducted on a mobile device, and 75 percent of those purchases happen in-store that very same day — and most of those purchases, 63 percent, happen within that same hour! Mobile is an extremely important channel to embrace.
Other channels like a shopping cart website, which allows a consumer to check availability, buy online and pick up in-store, are also very important. Companies like Starbucks and Best Buy are leading the pack in this regard by training their consumers to shop and buy this way, and you should follow suit. By developing a thorough online presence, you encourage webrooming and make the consumer feel comfortable and confident.
In addition, look for ways to bring the experience of online shopping to the sales floor. Recent surveys indicate that 85 percent of millennial shoppers are influenced by product reviews and look for insight from their peers before making a major purchase. So gather reviews of products that are in your store and post them near your products. (It's like being in the wine aisle at the grocery store. There are a lot of options, but some shelves have handy wine reviews nearby, which help push sales.) Use digital signage, QR codes and TV monitors to make it a seamless shopping experience. Once again, this encourages webrooming while making your store current and relevant to the changing consumer.
The biggest challenge retailers in the pool and spa industry are facing right now is understanding that "shopping is shopping." The consumer sees no difference between shopping online, in store or by smartphone, because the end goal is the same: acquiring goods and services. As a result, we've seen a rise in both showrooming and webrooming, but keep in mind that the odds are in your favor. According to a Harris Poll, six out of 10 webroomers have showroomed, but nine out of 10 showroomers have webroomed.
If you're now thinking about making some changes but aren't sure where to begin, start by taking a hard look at your business. Is it easy to do business with you? Do you have an online store that services customers in your market? And, most importantly, are you a company people would want to do business with?
As I mentioned before, there are upsides and downsides to everything. While showrooming may be a negative, webrooming presents an opportunity that you should seize. By improving the overall quality of your website and building in cross-channel purchasing capabilities, your business will thrive.
Ted Lawrence, POOLCORP corporate retail category manager, has been in the specialty swimming pool industry for more than 24 years and is known as a leading authority on omnichannel retail. With his experience and proven methods, Lawrence coaches hundreds of small independent as well as large multi-store chains on how to skyrocket revenues, increase consumer loyalty, plan for the future and reach the next level. He is an award-winning international presenter at dozens of industry events globally.
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