empty showroom
Brick-and-mortar isn't going anywhere: it's just evolving PHOTO: LHOON

Imagine this scene: On the hunt for a new couch, you walk into a furniture retailer. But instead of being surrounded by chairs or loveseats, you see shoppers peering into virtual reality headsets at stations throughout the store. 

You gaze into a virtual showroom, where you can swipe through products and see them in multiple arrangements. You select a couch in the color and size you want, order it and leave the store, empty-handed. A short time later, the same couch is delivered to your door.

It’s a futuristic scene, and is vastly different from the long treks through department and furniture stores we're used to today. 

But stores like this may be coming sooner than we think. To compete in a rapidly changing digital landscape, businesses need to adopt a new way of thinking about retail — across all channels. 

Brick-and-Mortar Isn’t Going Away: It’s Evolving

As customers increasingly turn to their phones and laptops to shop online, retailers aim to integrate online experiences with their traditional brick-and-mortar models.

Visiting physical locations clearly offer benefits over online platforms: Customers can interact with products in brick-and-mortar stores — they can see, test and try on items. Shoppers also are more easily exposed to other products they might not have purchased in a less immersive online experience. And finally, they can walk out of the store with products in hand, without waiting for delivery or paying for shipping. 

For these reasons and more, the brick-and-mortar model isn’t going away anytime soon. However, it is changing to become a more immersive digital experience.

The Integration of Online and Offline Shopping Is Already Here

Amazon is pushing ahead in this space with its bookstores, already open in several cities with more on the way. Though the store sells physical books (largely curated through online reviews), Amazon encourages customers to walk out empty-handed by ordering books online or downloading them through Kindle devices, which are showcased throughout the store. 

The physical store is emphasized more as a way to highlight and expose the full range of Amazon products rather than a place to purchase them.

This model separates the logistics and supply chain from physical stores, as customers can have products delivered directly to their homes. While customers can’t always walk away with what they want immediately, the model enables businesses to focus on providing faster deliveries directly to homes, instead of shipping products to stores first and then to consumers. 

What Can Brands Do Now?

The shift to a “productless store” will be gradual, and won't make sense for every industry. But the change does have implications across the board.

For now, brands need to focus on integrating the benefits of online and offline shopping. On a surface level, this means making inventory information more transparent and streamlining click-and-collect options for customers who browse online and pick up in-store. 

It also entails using virtual and augmented reality to improve the customer experience. 

For example, online shoppers should be able to virtually model products. Warby Parker already has this function which allows customers to “try on” glasses online. This way, customers who can’t access store locations can reap the benefits of seeing products in person, which provides a more satisfying online experience.

When strategizing for brick-and-mortar, retailers should think of physical locations as showcases for what is available online. They need to ensure that in-store offerings are consistent across online platforms, so customers can easily order products they’ve seen in stores. Retailers also need to maintain a robust logistics program that can support fast deliveries to customer homes.

While the “productless store” hasn't arrived yet, it’s only a matter of time. Retailers should expect to see more innovations like this in the increasingly competitive digital-centered landscape. To get ahead of the pack, this means preparing now.