Is Online Shopping on the Wane?

Computer graphic illustration about internet shopping in virtual world.

Originally published on November 11, 2016 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/sb-managing/is-online-shopping-dead/article32658017/

A few years ago, I was sitting with friends and talking about a job offer that one of them had just received. It was with a new online retailer of “everything gardening.”

I laughed. Then choked (elegantly) on my drink as we learned that our friend had already accepted the new position. For greater context, this Ivy League-educated professional had been wooed away from a Tier One international consulting firm to join a startup aiming to sell spades and seeds online.

It’s not that I don’t believe in the transformative potential of the Internet. I was and continue to be an avid online shopper for what I call non-tactile purchases: commodities such as books and music, where, once you’ve made your decision to buy, price and speed of access are the key, rather than place of purchase. I can even be pushed as far as buying shoes online from brands that I know and trust, feeling confident that they will arrive on time and fit as comfortably as the ones I just wore out.

But this was gardening! And gardening may be the most tactile of all pastimes. Avid gardeners spend hours of their scarce free time lovingly planning, shopping for, implementing and showing off their creativity and passion for the beauty of nature.

It just seemed counterintuitive to me that a hobby driven by touch and feel could be fed by a computer screen and two-day shipping. Of course, we all wished our friend luck and praised him for getting in on the ground floor. But it turned out we weren’t the only ones with reservations. Less than a year later, that “sure thing” startup laid off staff by the bushel, and it was back to Tier One consulting for my friend.

What made me think of this so many years later? On a stroll along Toronto’s Queen Street West, I passed one of the new Warby Parker “brick and mortar” stores. Warby Parker, for the non-hipsters among you, is an American company that formed in 2010 to sell affordable, good quality prescription eyeglasses and sunglasses. Despite its online roots, Warby Parker now has 40 retail locations, with many more planned, including both standalone outlets and mini-showrooms lodged inside existing boutiques.

Naturally I went online to read more about Warby Parker and this crazy new trend of shopping in stores. In an Inc. magazine article entitled Amazon Could Open up to 2,000 Grocery Stores, author Eugene Kim noted “Physical stores are becoming increasingly central to Amazon’s business ambitions as the company expands beyond its online-retailing stronghold and looks for new ways to reach customers.” New ways to reach customers? Incredible. Physical stores are now being heralded as innovative solutions to tech companies’ growth challenges. What Tier One consulting firm helped Amazon achieve this stunning breakthrough?

I get riled up about all this because I staunchly, consistently counsel companies not to chase all the shiny new toys. I know that online retail is not just a fad. But I will never believe that human beings will come to a point where they no longer need personal contact with each other.

A world in which we shop and do business cocooned in our homes or offices, void of smiles, advice and all human contact seems a dreary place to me. And it seems to miss the point that shopping is a personal experience, all about learning, growing and sharing with each other.

If you are a retailer, build the multichannel approach to reaching customers both online and off. If you are in business-to-business, the personal element is even more important. Get off your e-mail, tear yourself away from the Internet and do something novel: Pick up the phone or get in the car and go visit your customers. In real life, they don’t just want commodity service and the lowest price. They want more advice, more reasons to trust, and stronger personal relationships. These competitive advantages can’t be developed with the click of a mouse.

Remember, it’s called customer engagement for a reason.

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