Physical Stores

By Mark Nuyens
8 min. read💾 Nostalgia

Every Friday evening, my fiancé and I share this cherished ritual – a visit to our local shopping mall. While she explores the book section, my curiosity often leads me straight to the electronics department. It's a peculiar habit, considering how infrequently I make in-store purchases these days, especially in that specific store. Anyway, it's not the act of shopping itself that captivates me; it's rather the enduring presence of these typical "brick-and-mortar" stores in our increasingly digital world that sparks my interest.

I can't help but wonder how these physical stores are still able to thrive, especially when you consider the convenience and versatility of online shopping. Most of us have become used to navigating e-commerce websites, effortlessly filtering, sorting, and searching for specific products, and all without nosy salespeople looking over your shoulder. Most of us are aware of the many advantages this digital realm offers. However, we tend to forget not everyone has embraced online shopping and some people may actually prefer the real thing.

My own experience with retail goes back to 2012, when I was still working at Kijkshop, a Dutch retail chain that offered a versatile assortment, ranging from practical vacuum cleaners to exquisite jewelry. Saturdays were a whirlwind of activity, with customers lining up at each cash register, eager to make their purchases. However, despite its popularity, the store struggled under the weight of soaring rent costs and internet competition. Even relocating within the same mall couldn't avert its eventual closure. This narrative isn't unique; countless similar stores, particularly in the electronics sector, have encountered similar challenges, signaling a transformation in how we shop.

Ever since my time at Kijkshop, I've remained curious about the fate and future of these stores. Nowadays, I have a feeling we're on the verge of an even greater shopping revolution, largely fueled by advancements in augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technologies. These innovations promise to redefine our digital experiences, including shopping. Imagine inspecting products down to the smallest detail without ever physically handling them. Imagine virtually arranging furniture in your living space or engaging in insightful conversations with virtual sales experts who possess an encyclopedic knowledge of the products they represent (and disappear on your demand). This would prove to be a major leap in the way we interact with products, transcending the constraints of both traditional stores and web shops.

This raises the question: What lies ahead for physical stores? Can they weather the storm of technological and behavioral shifts? While my intuition tells me there will be serious challenges, I'm open to the possibility of being proven wrong. In fact, I genuinely hope I am. These physical stores hold a unique place in our shopping culture, offering tangible experiences and human interactions that digital platforms may struggle to replicate. Perhaps the key to survival lies in embracing digital demands while trying to find that sweet spot where the digital and physical realms come together, catering to both digital enthusiasts and those who still value the touch-and-feel experience and genuine human connections.

A striking example of this phenomenon is CoolBlue, a well-known online retailer that originally operated exclusively on the web but has since expanded to include physical storefronts. With more than 10 locations throughout The Netherlands, these stores offer customers the convenience of in-person item collection and returns, as well as the opportunity to see products firsthand, seek advice, request demonstrations, and ask questions. This innovative blend of online and offline shopping experiences essentially reverses the conventional approach of establishing physical stores before launching an online presence.

Another noteworthy case is Rituals, known for their personal care products, where I recently had the chance to explore their latest innovation: a sensory booth designed to deliver a "brain massage" through sound and back vibrations. This novel initiative has the potential to reinvigorate foot traffic, and ultimately create more opportunities for customers to make purchases. In any case, I found this to be a fascinating experiment, highlighting the enduring relevance of personal engagement alongside the growing trend of digital shopping.

As a final illustration, I recall my beloved bookstore. Beyond its extensive collection of English literature, it boasts an enchanting second-floor wine bar, creating a strong allure for physical visits over online alternatives. Notably, they used to sweeten the deal by offering a 50% discount on wines with the purchase of a book, further enhancing the appeal of the upstairs bar. They also provide memberships that include a complimentary monthly glass of wine, a tempting offer I've eagerly subscribed to since its announcement.

It's clear that significant changes have occurred in the retail landscape over the last decade. In fact, we may very well find ourselves at a crossroads between tradition and innovation. As we reimagine the future of physical stores, let's not lose sight of the past and the valuable insights from these experiences as we navigate our way into an ever more digitally-connected world. Whether these stores evolve, adapt, or perhaps even merge into their digital counterpart, their journey stands as a testament to the unstoppable force of consumer preferences and technological progress.