By Alec Zaballero and Kelli Cheung
Online shopping has been an undeniable lifeline during this pandemic. From groceries and essentials to clothing and lifestyle brands, people have been shopping online for months, accelerating a trend that was well underway. Pair that with the sight of boarded-up storefronts and news of iconic brands filing for bankruptcy and it’s fair to ask, “Is the physical store dead?” We believe otherwise. Things won’t be the same, but don’t count the store out just yet. Three factors point to the enduring nature of brick-and-mortar retail.
1 Emotional Connection
Firstly, the physical store still elicits an emotional response from the customer that online channels can’t. A useful analogy: If online shopping resembles online dating, then the customer’s first store visit is like a first date. Both the online brand and the romance seeker build up attractive web personas. These identities are projected through an online presence, a curated Instagram feed, and witty messaging. But the moment of truth is the first date – the first store visit in our case. It’s when the engagement level goes from a little screen to a multisensory experience. That first physical engagement allows the brand to truly connect with the customer. It’s make or break, magic or meh. As with every bad first date, customers never forget a bad first store visit.
2 Brand Re-authentication
Secondly, consider that many brands have been coasting through this pandemic in terms of brand evolution. Customers remember their offerings, and the current crisis has called for the comfort of the familiar. When the marketplace comes out of this, brand and product innovation will restart because that’s the nature of competition. As brands move forward, they will need to re-authenticate themselves to their loyalists. The ability to convey authenticity is a unique power inherent in the store environment. It is the mechanism for a brand to validate itself: the quality of its product, the values of the brand, and the initiatives it partners alongside.
3 Brand Advocacy
The last point has to do with brand loyalty. Most brands will survive or fail, especially new or niche, on the strength of their following. The physical store, because of its direct interaction, has the power to transform a browser into a believer. In the age of social media, the brand advocate becomes the ultimate win. In-store buzz-worthy events drive excitement for the brand and interest influencers everywhere. The power of the store is that it can be curated for anything – from special events and launches to community workshops and workout classes. Stores give brands credibility, on both a technical and personal level. For the brand advocate, the store visit is a chance to “renew their vows” to the brand, and then go out and spread the brand message.
While the physical store has changed from the main sales engine to part of a broader strategy, there are still certain things that only a physical presence can achieve. The store has a deeper purpose. It creates an authentic tether and reinforces credibility in both the brand’s offerings and mission. This need for connection won’t go away. A brand can have a stellar online presence, but won’t hit the next level without a physical one.
Alec Zaballero is managing executive/studio creative director for TPG Architecture. Kelli Cheung is writing and communications specialist for the company.