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Having had an opportunity to find a new appreciation of the simplest of things, many of us are ready to get back to our lives. One practice that allows us to do that is shopping. The question is where will that occur once the pandemic has subsided: in brick-and-mortar stores or online?
Does it matter? I think that it does for several reasons. In my view, shopping is about more than acquiring the provisions you need; it’s a journey. My first job was selling women’s shoes, and it allowed me to observe the in-store try-on session as a means of enjoyment. And just recently, I went to an electronics store for podcasting equipment. Though they were sold out, on my trip I was able to find something unrelated but still useful. This discovery process is made richer by the in-store shopping experience. Furthermore, for many, shopping is a social outlet, an aspect that can’t be replicated online.
Despite an increase in consumers’ preference for online shopping, I believe that real property can’t be displaced. Certainly, social distancing is going to change much about the in-store shopping experience, but brick-and-mortar stores are a destination, a journey of sorts.
As such, how do the owners and operators of retail real estate sway the online shopper out of their socially distanced online shopping habit? My belief is that we must make the brick-and-mortar store a destination. It worked for Disneyland — the whole park is designed for the imagination. Retail store operators should try to make their properties into attractions.
It’s one thing to see something cool online yet totally another to see, touch and use it in the store. Once, years ago, I heard someone mention that eventually, retail stores would charge customers for their entry. It’s certain that this kind of model could help to defray some costs of operating the brick-and-mortar property. And think about it: People pay dearly to go to an amusement park like Disneyland and scream, cry, laugh, etc. Why couldn’t they also pay for the thrill of instant gratification in a shopping setting?
Once the people are inside, the goal of property operators must be to make the space a creative canvas — to display the various goods like an online shopping results page, but with physical examples customers can see, touch and consider in the store. All the while, the experience is social and taking place out in the world. Remember, humans are social creatures, and being isolated from each other is not our normative state.
What property owners and operators could paint onto the newly imagined retail space would only be limited by cost and good sense. Retail operators will need to create destinations that people remember. As a result of the pandemic, people are going to have diminished choices in many areas of life. Retail property owners and operators could be in a position to create environments with meaning and purpose. Environments influence feelings. By carefully creating the right environments, brick-and-mortar retailers will have a chance.
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