The recent announcement of Virgin Megastores closing got me thinking.
credit: Digiart2001
credit: Digiart2001

Is this the end of music (CD) stores as we know it? Will every music store eventually fade away? What about bookstores? Will those eventually go dark too?

There are a number of retailers that are defintely affected by digitization - music, books, and videos. Will there simply no longer be a need for brick & mortar stores of these products? Certainly appears to be a dying breed.
 
What about other retailers? Will other industries eventually suffer a similar fate? What about shoes, computers, socks, power equipment, appliances, etc. Certainly all of this is already being sold online today, but how will this affect brick & mortar retailers? I am sure Zappos wants to take away even more business from shoe retailers. Or take the recent success of blacksocks.com - they certainly don’t think you need to go to a physical store to buy black socks anymore. Threadless continues to sell more and more t-shirts through its creative and collaborative web-site.
 
Retailers are going to start feeling the pinch from all directions. So what should traditional brick & mortar retailers be doing? Here are a few suggestions (IMO):
  • Blog. Engage your consumers through a blog. The more consumers know about your philosphy, your personality, your raison d’etre, the more likely they are to shop with you. Today’s Gen Y consumer (and all of us older folk that are catching up) not only crave this (if its interesting and engaging), but will actually respond and comment back to you, especially if we believe you’re listening.
  • Tweet, tweet, tweet. Whether through twitter, facebook, myspace, or others; micro-blogging is growing like crazy (1382% growth rate). It is an easy way to connect with all of your customers to inform, build brand, promote, and quickly solicit feedback.
  • Collaborate. Open up channels (e.g. facebook fanclubs) to your consumers that enable them to collaborate. Let them create a new design or logo, develop a new product line, offer new services. Who knows what your customers will come up with? But guaranteed, they will come up with some great ideas. They are after all your consumer and they know what they want or what to fix.
  • Offer alternatives. Brick & mortar retailers have an edge by allowing your customers more convenient ways to shop. Make sure all of these avenues are open to them and done so flexibly and with the utmost of service.

Today’s consumer is moved by engagement, collaboration, and transparency. It’s not a one size fits all type of thing, but things are moving in this general direction. Don’t compete with Zappos or Threadless, learn from them, join them! Look at what UK’s Mothercare is doing. They engage their captive consumers with tons of social interaction and useful information on their social networking site Gurgle.com. In another example, a small California retailer Trends in Two has done something similar for its specialty store of twin parents (or soon to be parents) with their own social network devoted to twin pregancies - Twin Pregnancy And Beyond.

In the case of Apple, they actually moved away from internet-only sales to B&M stores, in order to further engage their customers and improve the overall customer experience. Now, Microsoft is setting out do the same. Here we see a trend with companies that see a need for B&M stores to further engage and connect with their customers. So maybe brick & mortar stores aren’t quite dead yet :) 

As always, your thoughts, experiences and comments are appreciated.