A Warby Parker brick-and-mortar location.

It was bound to happen. And it is, step by step — or should I say brick by brick? The world of online retail is tiptoeing into the physical format to try its hand at bricks-and-mortar. And why wouldn’t these now established online brands begin to inch into this space? It was only a matter of time. Yes, e-commerce sales continue their growth.

According to Forrester Research, online sales in the U.S. alone will reach nearly $394 billion in 2017. However, this is still a disproportionately small segment compared to the total retail market of roughly $4 trillion.

Allison Ames think tank

Allison Ames 

Over the past decade, we’ve seen the transformation of bricks-and-mortar retailers moving into the digital world. We’ve seen what feels like an infinite list of retailers shutter stores or drastically reduce their footprint, in no small measure due to online retailers, especially Amazon. We’ve seen countless bricks-and-mortar retailers trying to re-engage with consumers in-store to stay alive. We’ve seen the birth of web retailers that have created a unique way to interact, transact and tell the right brand story to consumers online, all through access on a digital device.

What’s been so refreshing about the emergence of these digitally native brands is that they all share a common goal. They are razor-focused on two words: intimacy and experience. By definition, all aspects of e-commerce are predicated on a deep and analytic understanding of consumer demographics and needs to establish trust and repeat visits. Consumer intimacy is directly linked to success and sales. The successful digital retailers have perfected the experience that consumers have with their brand from the first click. But there is one thing that the experience of a click can’t achieve. And that’s the intimacy that comes from a physical interaction.

So it stands to reason that the next phase of this segment’s evolution is its move past online to integrate physical retail into the total experience. The good news is that these brands have learned from their predecessors and their move into the physical domain is far more than what we’ve come to expect from the old guard of retail. Brands born from the digital world are now disrupting the physical space with a new dimension of customer involvement. Traditional retailers beware. These e-tailers are changing the basic transaction and store print to offer far more compelling brand experiences and customer service. It just might make people want to walk back into a store again! More importantly, this might be the life line that malls need to bring shoppers back, especially Millennials.

There’s a steady list of e-tailers that are venturing into the physical world and have recognized the importance of unified commerce that blends offline and online. How they’re executing is going to drive the next phase of retail, delivering exciting experiential methods that will reinvigorate and change our relationship with shopping as well as consumer behaviors. These are just a handful of established online stores making their bricks-and-mortar debut but doing it “their way.”

  • No one is walking out of Bonobos’ 10 Guide Shops with anything. Customers can make an appointment to try on clothing, place the order online and receive it in 24 hours. Easy and painless and no clunky shopping bags.
  • Warby Parker pop-up shops bring theater to a new level. In its Melrose Avenue store in Los Angeles, shoppers can make their own 15-second movie, choosing from different backdrops and props, including any of the frames on display, that they can share on social media. Only in Hollywood!
  • British retailer Missguided’s new store at Westfield Stratfield mall in London is a creative expression of pop culture meets social media meets personal style. It’s a visual extravaganza that brings Missguided’s online ethos to life in a dramatic and fun way! What an experience.
  • Addressing the growing trend of accessible luxury with all the personal service bells and whistles, two e-tailers are making their mark: Canada’s Indochino and Italy’s Gemi. Both are testing the physical world with a high-touch, high-customer service and personal experience. Similar to Bonobos, neither store carries inventory but these in-store experiences give new meaning to social interaction versus solo time spent online.

These are only a few examples of the growing roster of online retailers taking the next steps into the offline world. In addition, we’ve heard about Birchbox, Fabletics, Untuckit and soon-to-open One Kings Lane also stepping into the physical genre. And there’s many more.

One thing’s for sure, these digital disruptors are going to change the face of physical with innovative and state-of-the-art retail stores that will amplify the meaning of true experiential brand engagement and unified commerce.

Allison Ames is president and chief executive officer of Beanstalk. Since joining Beanstalk in 1995, Ames has spearheaded strategic licensing initiatives for diverse brands including Stanley Black & Decker, HGTV, Diageo, Airheads, U.S. Army, Purina, Danskin, Kelly Ripa, Mary-Kate and Ashley, Salma Hayek, among others. She was an integral part of the development and management of worldwide retail exclusive programs for Mary-Kate & Ashley and Danskin Now.

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