In a bizarre reversal of the traditional story, digital-born businesses are now taking to physical retail, looking to harness the concept of the ‘experience economy’, in a bid to grow their audience. Traditionally online companies such as Warby Parker, an eyeglass retailer in the United States, are opening bricks and mortar branches to allow consumers to try their products in person.
Warby Parker’s original concept was that it would send consumers a range of glasses that they could try on at home. The shoppers could then send back the glasses that they didn’t like. Shoppers started asking the company if there was a way that they could buy glasses in person. In an attempt to keep those customers happy, the co-founders accommodated shoppers in their own homes, using a laptop as a cash register and asking customers to use the website to complete transactions.
It soon became clear that customers really do still enjoy the physical shopping experience.
So the founders, Blumenthal and Golboa, started experimenting with a mobile store, pop-up shops, and a concept store, before opening their first flagship store in 2013. From that store in New York City, the brand has subsequently grown to 31 stores spread across the United States. The firm has seen that the combination of products, books, and carefully selected local design features has been perfect for growing its reach.
Warby Parker may have pioneered the idea of online going offline, but it isn’t the only company to expand its ecommerce offering with physical stores. Birchbox and Bonobos have both taken their stores into the world of physical retail, and Amazon opened a store in Seattle, which is doing well enough that additional stores are said to be in the making.
In some respects, retail has come full circle. Amazon’s growth is partly down to the fact that it has been able to undercut the high street, and it has actually contributed to the death of a number of bricks and mortar stores, including Borders. But it turns out that there’s a segment of the market that will always want to be able to touch and feel products before buying.
For those shoppers, online is not enough. It is the ‘experience’ of browsing, receiving advice, and getting personal attention from the provider that makes shopping worthwhile for them, and that is what companies such as Apple and Warby Parker have mastered so well.