For more than forty years Gary Hoover has made a living asking the same simple question, “What separates the losers from the winners?” He started his professional journey at a young age, subscribing to Fortune Magazine at just 12-years-old. He’s led and pioneered several successful businesses, including Bookstop, which was sold to Barnes & Noble for $41.5 million when it was just 7-years-old. Additionally, he started Hoover’s, Inc., the world’s largest Internet-based provider of information about enterprises. Today we’re lucky to have him on our blog sharing his thoughts on the shift from brick-and-mortar retail to ecommerce.
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I recently published detailed projections on the future of ecommerce. Over the next 25 years, ecommerce will increasingly take share from brick-and-mortar retailers. This has been cause for many sleepless nights for those companies with large investments in physical retail spaces. What are they to do? As a lifelong lover and student of retailing, here are some thoughts.

First, realize that retailing starts from a strong position. Over 90% of U.S. total retail sales are still made through brick-and-mortar. Over one-third of people consider shopping a hobby. In most surveys, shopping is one of the top two or three reasons people travel (just study the European flow into Macy’s Herald Square store in New York City). Our greatest retailers, including Nordstrom, Whole Foods, Costco, and Home Depot, have high levels of engagement with their customers.

Second, the fact is that ecommerce is fundamentally sterile and two-dimensional. Yes, we all love Amazon and the others for their prices, information, and convenience. But as Aristotle pointed out, man (and woman) is a social animal. Most of us do not want to spend all of our time locked onto a screen.

In this context, the best retailers can pursue numerous strategies, including cultural engagement, entertainment, localization, and education.

1. Cultural Engagement. The great Stanley Marcus, largely responsible for the rise of Neiman Marcus, often spoke with his affluent women customers. While other merchants would ask them what hem length or fall colors they liked, “Mr. Stanley” would ask them what books they were reading, what plays they had seen, what cities they had visited, and which of these engaged them the most. He understood that the real key to success was getting into their heads and understanding their lives. If Millennial influencers are talking about “caveman” and “plant-based” diets, does your grocery store and its signage reflect this cultural trend?  Television viewership is as strong as ever, especially when you include DVR, Netflix, and HBO. Movies continue to play an important role in our daily conversations. Does your store reflect this week’s hit movies and TV shows? How often do you look to see what the best-selling books are? Do you think about how you can use these ideas in your stores?

2. Entertainment. Boring, unchanging stores like Sears are like a morgue these days. But visit Town Pool in Nantucket, Meow Wolf in Santa Fe, the City Museum in St. Louis, or any MakerFaire. Despite sometimes inexpensive environments, these places are mobbed, and people PAY to get in most of them! How can your store, reflecting your present and evolving merchandise mix, entertain your customers? Even in the old trade fairs of medieval Europe, customers could eat, drink, play golf, watch comedies and plays, and see fortune tellers, fire-eaters, jugglers, magicians, and snake charmers. What are the 21st century versions of fire-eaters and snake charmers? One of the top tourist attractions in the South, the World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta, keeps crowds absorbed with performances by old-fashioned soda jerks working their magic. The best of these places are full of whimsy and a sense of humor – how much of that do you find in a typical store? Check out Disney World or any great children’s museum for ideas.

3. Localization. The great retailers of the past were integral parts of their communities. Not only was merchandise customized to the market, but they had big auditoriums for community events, frequent fashion and other shows, and led the local United Way and other causes. We have lost much of this. On the other hand, the soon-to-open Whole Foods Market in Brooklyn will have an area for local produce vendors to display and sell their wares, not unlike the great farmers’ and public markets of past and present. Are your stores deeply engaged in each community in which you operate?

4. Education. Customers are better educated than ever in history, but they want more in this information age. Home Depot and Michael’s have frequent “how to” classes. My store TravelFest drew 10,000 people a year to our small classroom, teaching everything from how to pack to foreign languages. Our “how to gamble in Vegas” drew over 3,000 people on one Saturday alone. When told by a clerk in a giant electronics store, “That digital camera is just a rumor,” I didn’t have the heart to tell him its release was the cover story of every major photography magazine. Are you and your store teams part of this learning and educational process?  Do you provide staff and customers with relevant workshops, literature, books, magazines, and websites? Or do I have to step outside and get on my smartphone or tablet to find detailed product information about the items on your shelves? Are you the “go-to source” for your merchandise categories?

Above all else, great retail stores must be places of discovery and surprise. One hundred years ago, the great department stores drew tens of thousands of people to their grand openings. The wonders of the world, from French art deco to British mod fashions, were introduced to “the masses.” Only the best museums and world’s fairs could compete for excitement. Today the best science and children’s museums and Disney theme parks are often better “merchants” than many of our stores. If we don’t give customers a more engaging and exciting experience than they get sitting at their computer screens or locked onto their iPhones, why should we expect them to bother with us?
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Gary Hoover is a veteran retail executive, speaker, author, teacher, founder of the first book superstore chain Bookstop, co-founder of Hoovers.com, and former Whole Foods Market board member. Check out Gary’s website and his 2016 report on retail principles and trends to gain more insight.