5 Things SMBs Can Learn From the So-Called “Retail Apocalypse”

This is a post by Cara Wood.

After the smashing success of the 2017 holiday season, perhaps it’s a bit melodramatic to continue using the term “retail apocalypse.” It’s true that J.C. Penney’s, Macy’s and Sears have each closed more than 100 stores and 300 malls are expected to close by 2025. But despite that, retailers opened 4080 new stores last year and they’re planning to open 5500 more in 2018.

We’re not in a retail apocalypse. We’re just seeing a changing of the guard.

With the success of eCommerce, customers no longer have to go to the same 50 stores their local mall offers and put up with whatever experience (good or bad) they might find there just to replace their work pants. Shoppers have all the options in the world right at their fingertips now.

So, how you can stay relevant? Here’s how your store can beat the so-called apocalypse and join the future of brick-and-mortar retail.

Say it with us: experience, experience, experience

“Experience, experience, experience” is the retail equivalent of real estate’s “location, location, location.” Post-2008 recession, shoppers began to focus whatever disposable income they had on experiences. The travel and food industries have both seen a boom in the past decade because people are looking to pay for things they can submerge their senses in, remember forever, and brag about online. Let’s talk about some ways retailers can hop on this:

1. Make it easy for shoppers to Instagram your stores.

Young shoppers, in particular, are highly driven by experiences they can visually share. Adjusting your store to make it Insta-ready is a win-win. You’ll encourage shoppers to come shop and any photos they share are free marketing! A store that is actively discouraging photography in 2018 is shooting themselves in the foot. Here are a few things you should do to ready your store for Instagram:

Use unique design elements. Take a cue from the Museum of Ice Cream, which is part museum, part shop, and 100% an Instagrammer’s paradise. The museum offers interactive, pastel exhibits that practically beg to have photos taken of them. There’s a pool of rainbow sprinkles to play in and a unicorn in front of a trippy rainbow wall to sit on, among other things.

And while your store probably doesn’t have the space to create whole exhibits, try smaller things like a creative shelving display such as the display in this picture via KaleJunkie. 

Or consider investing in remarkable flooring or even just a floormat. Check out this example via ihavethisthingwithfloors.

Have the perfect lighting. If you don’t have a lot of natural light in your store, help your customers achieve the perfect photo by using amber colored lighting, rather than fluorescent.

One more thing: don’t forget to brand your visuals. However you choose to design things, keep it recognizably on brand. Make sure you encourage sharing and tagging your brand by posting your branded hashtag and handle around the store.

A savvy place to put that information is on mirrors — especially in the fitting rooms. Young people have made the try-on process digital. Where once they might have shopped with five friends and crowdsourced opinions in person, now young shoppers will snap photos in the fitting rooms to share for opinions via text and/or social media. Be certain they’re tagging your store by making your digital info clearly visible on the mirror.

New York & Company, for example, has hashtag stickers in its dressing rooms to encourage people to post images of their outfits on Instagram.

2. Use the in-store experience to address practical concerns customers can’t address online.

Shopping online is largely about convenience. But customers still prefer to shop in person if the store can offer services addressing concerns that can’t be offered online.

Eddie Bauer, for instance, offers Ice Box, a try-on freezer in their Columbus, Ohio store. Ice Box is an 8x8ft room that can go as low as 10 degrees and uses high powered fans to simulate wind chill. This room makes it a breeze (pun intended) for customers to see how Eddie Bauer’s outerwear will actually perform in freezing weather – an experience you quite literally can’t get online. The best part is that Ice Box has existed since the ‘50s.

The company had some freezers in Seattle that they used to test outerwear while developing it. They simply took that concept and put it in a store. (The in-store version also has a branded ice cube to sit on, making the Ice Box ideal for Instagram shots, too.)

As a small store, you may want to consider whether you have any product-testing features that you could bring in-store for customers. And you don’t have to build a freezer in your store to create a practical experience for your customers. Rather, think about what supplemental educational offers you can create for your customers centered around your products. Stores like Sephora offer in-store makeovers and one-on-one teaching sessions to help their customers learn how to use their products for an experience that doesn’t require altering their existing building.

3. Build entertainment into the shopping experience.

Because customers can do all the bare minimum aspects of shopping online, they’re looking for in-person shopping to be fun, rather than an errand.

One retailer who’s been far ahead of the “retailtainment” trend is the American Girl store. American Girl has used their stores to provide entertainment to their young customers at least since the early ‘90’s when I begged my mom to bring me to the NYC location. In addition to shopping, the store has offered tea with your doll, salon services for your doll, and even sleepovers with your doll for years. They’re continuing to stay ahead of the trend by adding new features, such as the ability for their young customers to custom build dolls and doll clothing in store.

While many stores don’t have the budget American Girl does, smaller stores could consider things like something like partnering with a local coffee shop to have a boutique pop-up cafe in-store.

One retailer that explored this concept is Barnes & Noble. In late 2016, Barnes & Noble opened four new concept stores dedicated to exploring the bookseller’s new retailtainment direction — one each in Edina, Minnesota; Eastchester, New York; Folsom, California; and Loudoun County, Virginia.

The retailtainment experience involves a full-service restaurant and bar, with a combination of traditional and lounge seating and power stations for devices situated across the entire space.

The impetus behind the change? “It’s clear the community wants retailtainment,” said Barnes & Noble Vice President of Development David Deason in a piece by Minnesota’s Star Tribune. “This is a departure for us. It’s not grab-and-go, but sit-and-stay.”

Use showrooming to your advantage

Showrooming can be extremely effective, as is evidenced by two major eCommerce-only giants, Amazon and Modcloth, creating actual stores specifically for showrooming in recent years. Each store offers their own lessons.

4. Seamlessly connect your physical and online locations.

Both Modcloth and Amazon are well-connected to their websites, but Amazon’s connection is truly impressive. The interior of their store in Walnut Creek, CA, features tags beneath each item that can be scanned within the Amazon app. Once scanned, the app tells you what price the item is based on your loyalty membership or other sales occurring on Amazon, making it easy for their in-store location to keep up with the website’s ever-changing prices.

This scan also makes it a snap to purchase the item right from your phone should you want. Amazon doesn’t stop there, though. While the store has only a small inventory, you can purchase some products displayed in-store in person. In that case, you check yourself out on a series of iPads, where you actually log into your Amazon account and purchase the product online.

Small stores can replicate this by using iPad POS software like Vend that seamlessly connects their online and offline worlds for sales associates and customers alike.

5. Make it easy for customers to interact with your products.

The key to showrooming is understanding that while your customers enjoy purchasing online, they come into a store to actually touch your products. To that end, Amazon has tables of Alexas you are encouraged to play with. Modcloth goes even further, literally referring to their storefront as a “fit store”.

In their Austin, TX, store, customers are given the royal treatment. The floor offers a single size in every item, so customers choose items they’d like to try, while a stylist goes to the back to pull their size. The stylist will pull other items along the way to curate outfits tailored exactly to the taste of the customer. The styling session doesn’t end there though. Once the trying on starts, stylists offer opinions on fit, education on care, and accessorizing. It’s a full styling service that (try though they do) Modcloth simply can’t offer online and makes the trip to the store completely worth it. From personal experience, I actually spent more money in one go at Modcloth than I ever have on their website purely because of the stylist’s help.

In both these stores, the bulk of their sales are still made online. (Modcloth, in fact, doesn’t let you take home any of the in-store merchandise unless it’s final sale.) The storefronts themselves likely don’t turn much of a traditional brick-and-mortar ROI. Rather, both stores function as educational outlets for customers.

For a small store looking to replicate these techniques, you can start by de-cluttering your floor. Place most of your stock in the back, leaving space for your customers to play with your floor stock. If you have products in packages, consider pulling one out and placing it on a table for customers to use. Train your associates on best practices and other educational things about each of your products so they can provide information to customers as they use products.


Ultimately, surviving the retail apocalypse means putting your customers first – just like you hopefully have been all along. Consider what it would mean to your customers to be able to physically shop in a store that supplements your website. If the answer is something completely different than anything you’ve ever seen before, don’t worry, you’re probably on the right track, because, ultimately, modern retail is about uniqueness.

About Francesca Nicasio

Francesca Nicasio is Vend's Retail Expert and Content Strategist. She writes about trends, tips, and other cool things that enable retailers to increase sales, serve customers better, and be more awesome overall. She's also the author of Retail Survival of the Fittest, a free eBook to help retailers future-proof their stores. Connect with her on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Google+.