Ah, the joy of running errands. Speeding to the grocery store after work, picking a gift out at a department store, and piling into a car after school to head to the mall are identifiers of the age of commerce. Until the arrival of Gen Z, most consumers associated errands and purchasing goods with going into a physical store: department stores like Nordstrom and Bloomingdales, and grocery stores such as Kroger. With these established franchises celebrating their 150th or so birthdays, it is safe to say that brick and mortar has defined the way we shop for quite a while. Additionally, since the establishment of the first mall in 1956, and its surging popularity in the 1980’s, brick and mortar stores cultivate a massive community with a space that combines large department stores, food, and single businesses all in one consumer hub.
However, with the onset of eCommerce and growing DTC influence beginning in the 1990’s, the brick and mortar precedent set by department stores, malls, and grocery stores is challenged. Modern, online alternatives to the mom-and-pop stores present a generational shift in the way consumers run their errands.
A new consumer experience is upon us. Instead of flashy stage lights in teen clothing store chains, there’s bright color schemes on a landing page. Instead of messy in-store sale sections, the online version lets one filter through options, stress-free. Instead of a mall arcade, DTC brands embed games onto their websites. While online alternatives are certainly pleasing to look at, the online experience can only be emulated to a certain extent without having an in-person experience. So, how are consumers wanting to experience their shopping?
Get in Loser, We’re Going Online Shopping
Walking into a store invites a level of experience that incites joy or dread: while in-person persuing comes with the convenience of trying on and seeing products in person, no one likes the traffic, rush hour crowds, or potentially long day trips in order to get to the store. Being entirely digital, online shopping adds a level of convenience and accessibility that brick and mortar is unable to achieve, no matter how hard it tries. With the fact that shopping online can be done from anywhere on a computer or phone, those who don’t have the time to run errands, live farther from stores, are sick, or as of late, wary of public places due to COVID, customers’ needs are fulfilled easily and often with a competitively personal experience found with online DTC brands.
The online shopping formula is as such: grocery stores are to subscription boxes, as department stores are to thrift apps, as malls are to DTC alternatives or Amazon.
Grocery and meal subscription boxes are relatively newer to the online trend, with popular choices including Misfits Market and Hello Fresh. Produce boxes like Misfits Market aim to deliver fresh produce from farmers that would otherwise be thrown out, in theory helping the food waste problem of our agricultural system, while ready-to-make meal boxes like Hello Fresh portion out food for easy-to-cook meals– both options take the hassle out of grocery shopping, and ultimately allow customers to worry about one less errand to run.
Department stores occupy a different corner of commerce, one that is historically exclusive. Since their inception, most department stores harbour a variety of retail items at full price. It wasn’t until discount department stores such as Nordstrom Rack, Ross, or Saks Off Fifth was there a consistent, discounted alternative to high retail prices. Recent shopping trends amongst Gen Z shoppers suggest that full prices are a dwindling concept of the past; only an estimated 33% of teens are shopping at department stores, and there has been an estimated 9% drop in overall spending each year by teenagers. There is an 11% drop in apparel spending alone, and reportedly 58% have sold second hand items on online apps such as Poshmark, Depop, and TheRealReal. The younger generation is substituting new items for cheaper secondhand, ultimately indicating the value consumers put in sustainable fashion and environmental impact.
Welcome to Brick and Mortar Cyberspace
There are two sides to the brick and mortar vs DTC standoff: generational shopping on the consumer side, and enhanced UX on the business side. Both are advancing in ways that support each other, and both are aggressively defining the markets they inhabit. With a whopping 90% of teens reporting that they shop online versus 41% of boomers, it’s not hard to see that the changing shopping climate is primarily driven by the youngest generation of consumers. Instead of piling into a car to hang at the mall, browse through multiple stores, and sip on cherry slushies, teens and young adults are piling onto their couches with a bowl of popcorn while they browse through items on their phone or computer. Classic destination malls are being replaced by an endless, cyber mall: the Internet.
Traditional retail has varied experiences that make visiting a store exciting: for instance, have you ever taken a trip to Dylan’s Candy Bar, where Candy lines the walls and rainbows seem to pop in every corner? Or, remember walking around a dimly lit Abercrombie and Fitch, senses overwhelmed by heavy perfume, lack of light, and bass-heavy music? The latter might not be as exciting as walking into a candy wonderland, but it’s an experience nonetheless.
Enhanced design, animation, customer service, and overall product embodied by many DTC brands creates a unique user experience that rivals and transcends that of brick and mortar stores. Instead of walking in and meeting racks of clothes or a customer associate, websites such as Recess and Starface have exciting landing pages that move as one scrolls. Other sites, such as Fluff Casual Cosmetics and Baboon to the Moon, have bold pops of color that illustrate a brand’s voice, all through controlled color psychology. Additionally, brands such as Burrow, Shinola, and Allbirds incorporate video into their site.
Moreover, with the DTC focus on customer satisfaction and connectedness, many brands go above and beyond to make customers feel connected in ways that either incorporate or transcend product. For instance, Warby Parker offers easy in-home try ons for 5 lenses, all for free; no need to get up from the couch and go into a physical store. The process is streamlined with a virtual try on camera and easy walk through instructions. Another brand that connects to their customers well is Outdoor Voices– the company is very active on Instagram and often reposts customer photos. Many activewear brands such as Outdoor Voices, as well as Fabletics and Girlfriend, use social media to build an inclusive community amongst a diverse customer base of all shapes and sizes.
Notably, this increased customer connectedness, ironically through a screen, allows for transparency to be a consequence of DTC marketing efforts. A website includes product, mission statement, social media plugs, and FAQs all in one place, which makes important values and company mantras easily accessible to anyone visiting the site. For instance, with sustainability trending amongst customers, many companies are sure to include a sustainability pledge on their website where customers can click to while browsing and adding items to their cart.
Additionally, transparency takes the form of multimedia platforms. As previously mentioned, DTC brand Outdoor Voices connects with consumers directly on their active social media platform, in addition to publishing content on their company blogs, The Recreationalist. When there seems to be a person behind a brand, people are reminded of the perks of in-store mom and pop shops– personability comes as a result of transparency. DTC practices are the modern, online take on personal relationships, and they echos of the same community found in an 80’s shopping mall.
Is Brick and Mortar Dead?
Short answer: no.
Longer answer: The winner of the shopping tradeoff between in-person and at-home shopping is largely determined by the experience the customer wishes to seek. Up until recently, in-person shopping was the popular way to shop. Having the ability to peruse through clothes, books, and home goods in person makes products tactile and unobstructed by a pesky computer screen. Now, however, with the onset of competitively aesthetic UX, there are nice ways to shop online that make users feel as if they are in a physical store.
In most cases, just like many people pay to visit a museum or movie, people can choose to visit brick and mortar stores. DTC is simply adding a new experience: with rivaling and design-heavy UX, eCommerce has carved out a place for themselves next to the other experiences people choose to pay for. Instead of getting your receipt in store, however, you’re getting a package delivered to your doorstep.
But wait, there’s a catch! Brick and mortar and DTC brands are not necessarily bound to their respective spheres of influence. Traditionally online DTC brands such as Away have opened in-person stores, while many brands such as Target have adopted in-house DTC brands, such as Good & Gather. The move to online by brick and mortar demonstrates the rise in online consumerism. On the other hand, even though DTC is primarily online, the expansion into brick and mortar spreads the brands’ personability beyond the computer screen, and it shows how in-person shopping and online browsing can’t live completely independently.
Ultimately, brick and mortar will never die, it will just continue to evolve along with consumer interest. While in-person and online shopping seem to compete against one another, it all boils down to the experience consumers wish to buy into. Both have their perks, and both have their cons; and, perhaps both will learn from each other. What is most apparent in this new era of commerce transcends the medium of shopping: consumers want personability, convenience, and exciting design. Mix those all together, and you have the DTC ethos. So: whether the evidence of your shopping comes in the form of an in-store receipt or a package on your doorstep, enjoy the newly enhanced and user-friendly experience that comes as a result of DTC influence.