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'Tis the Season to Bash Brick & Mortar

December 2, 2013

While broadcast news reports certainly helped hype Black Friday, most showed the negative side of the brick & mortar shopping experience, including the long lines, suspect discounts, and violent incidents.

A website, BlackFridayDeathCount.com, keeps track of Black Friday-related deaths and injuries with links to news articles detailing the incidents. For 2013, the site reports 15 injuries and one death.

Not surprisingly, e-tailers also slammed the in-store experience on their websites and in marketing.

In a press release released the day before Thanksgiving, Robin Domeniconi, chief marketing officer, Rue La La, the members-only shopping site, exclaimed, "The holidays are an opportunity to cherish time with friends and family, and our goal is to let gift-givers stay at home and enjoy it. You won't need to camp outside of a store on Thanksgiving Day to find great value this season."

"No matter which way you slice it, who really likes standing in line — especially on a holiday?" asserts Scott Ballantyne, CMO at backcountry.com, the outdoor gear e-tailer, in a release that came out the same day.

Accompanying a survey showing that 57 percent of Black Friday shoppers plan to do their buying online, Overstock.com chairman and CEO Patrick Byrne, in a statement earlier this month, said, "Online shopping allows consumers to make purchases comfortably from their home while avoiding the holiday rush, waiting in line, fighting traffic and suffering the weather."

Brick and mortar stores play up deals, and some point to the advantages of in-store help, but largely unheard are any other of the benefits of in-store shopping. Not mentioned are the generally smoother return processes, being able to touch and feel products, and the instant gratification from not needing to wait for products to arrive. In a blog entry, Blair Swedeen, SVP of strategy & business development, Placecast, the location marketer, spoke to "the interaction of the senses and shopping — smelling a new cologne, tasting the new holiday chai flavor, and feeling the cashmere sweater for your wife in your hand."

His blog entry addressed the "overhyped" battle of brick & mortar shopping vs. online, with over 90 percent of shopping this year still expected to come from physical stores. He doubts many categories — mentioned were apparel, shoes, beauty/fitness and groceries — will ever be dominated by online shopping.

Mr. Swedeen even contends "that physical rush we get when we save money" makes deal euphoria more fun at physical stores than online. "There's a reason why people line up at dawn (or earlier!) outside the doors on Black Friday — not just to get the newest Xbox, but also to get the best deals, and the rush of excitement from saving money."

Discussion Questions:

Does online buying get unfairly portrayed as more favorable to in-store shopping, particularly during the holidays? Why don't we hear more positive messages about physical store shopping?

While we value unfettered opinion, we urge you to show respect and courtesy for people or companies about whom you comment. Keep in mind that this is a public, professional business discussion. RetailWire reserves the right to edit or refuse the publication of remarks that we deem unsuitable. We may also correct for unintended spelling and grammatical errors.

Instant Poll:

Are the portrayals of in-store holidy shopping fair or unfair?


I agree with Mr. Swedeen that bricks-and-mortar will continue to overshadow e-commerce, but there are good reasons why traditional retailers are growing their omnichannel strategies (and their web sales) at an accelerated pace.

Let's start with the premise that the Black Weekend shopper is a bargain-hunter, not necessarily a loyal "best customer" that can drive store profits over the long run. So the negative experience of "doorbuster" frenzy is likely to drive many "best customers" away from the mall. And it should come as no surprise that sales actually declined this weekend, as Thursday early openings drain a lot of urgency out of the "Black Friday" experience.

As to the rest of Mr. Swedeen's argument, I'm not sure his points are valid. When companies like Amazon can execute same-day delivery, and when websites like Zappos can make shoe-buying a relatively risk-free experience, it's no wonder that customer spending on apparel, beauty, etc. are migrating to the Web at a fast pace.

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Dick Seesel, Principal, Retailing In Focus LLC

There are three businesses anxious to tout online shopping from the carriers, to the banks and the credit card companies. Everyone gets a piece as online expands. And because online is still such a small piece of the pie, the growth claims can sound extraordinary.

Online, and mobile are additions to retailing, not replacing retailing - that is until Amazon's drones arrive within 30 minutes of ordering - then it really will be "Rise of the Machines...."

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Bob Phibbs, President/CEO, The Retail Doctor

I did a drive-by on Thanksgiving night. Old Navy was packed with people (50% off everything in the store will do that for you, I guess), and a store manager was standing on a checkout stand, whistle in hand, dictating some kind of instructions to shoppers. My friend wanted to see what the hub-bub was, but all I wanted to do was run away.

Why in heaven's name would ANYONE want to do that? Clearly people do, but it's certainly not something I want to be a part of.

Contrast that with my realization that a camera birthday gift did not include a case or memory, so I went online, ordered it, paid a few bucks so it would get here before I leave for vacation Wednesday, and that was that.

We have created a monster ('in-store deals') and it is becoming a very classist situation. That's not a good thing for anyone. So apart from the fact that bad news sells and good news does not, it's a pretty accurate portrayal in my opinion.

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Paula Rosenblum, Managing Partner, RSR Research

Physical stores can deliver a wonderful experience (such as Apple, Nordstrom, Trader Joe's). The real story is that shoppers have choices and they choose when and how to shop and that will always be a mixture of physical and digital - each person will determine what the right mix is for their specific situation, shopping occasion, and economic trade-offs.

The physical and digital are not mutually exclusive; it's not either/or, but rather can and do enhance each other to deliver a more complete and satisfying experience. For me, I would rather avoid the zany store atmosphere around Black Friday and spend my time doing something that gives me a higher value/enjoyment.

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Mohamed Amer, Vice President, Global Integrated Retail Unit, SAP

Again, we are back to this changing age of the shoppers. The Millennial group makes the most noise about this e-comm-based shopping. There are still many humans that are not controlled by their mobile devices or laptops or pads of domination. These humans, aka normal shoppers, enjoy the store and the chance to be around merchandising and real people.

We shop for things that have special meaning and no meaning (jewlery and batteries). Lines are not an issue if you time the store visits right. And last, while some are hunting around the house for packing tape, I will be at the store simply doing a return.

Happy Holidays and shop YOUR way!

Tom... Oh, there is a Bezos drone landing across the street and the kids are shooting at it with their new Red Ryder BB guns that their Dad picked up at the store....

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Tom Redd, Vice President, Strategic Communications, SAP Global Retail Business Unit

90% or not, I believe that online shopping has the edge when it comes to the experience. Especially when, in my Black Friday perusals, I hit stores during the lull between doorbusters, but still found long lines - unnecessarily long lines. The only thing we ended up buying at the mall on Friday was cookies. The rest we bought at home. Online.

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Nikki Baird, Managing Partner, RSR Research

Why should a retailer really care where the sale comes from as long as it doesn't go to a competitor? Some customers like to shop online, some in stores, some in downtown stores. When the channel revenue no longer supports the costs, it gets less investment - just as poor performing, older stores give way to newer, better located ones.

It's really about offering the customer their choice of how and where to do business and for some people, lining up at midnight to get that amazing deal and take their trophy home right away is their choice. (Not for all, and not for me!) So playing up the in store benefits and those amazing door busters is the right thing for that channel, while perhaps having those amazing one-hour online specials is the right thing for those who prefer to sit in front of a computer waiting for that next offer to open up.

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Peter J. Charness, SVP America, Global CMO, TXT Group

Brick & mortar shopping receives a great deal of positive promotional benefit. No need to "feel sorry" for these merchants, especially when you understand that they, too, are making online offers that bring revenue/profit their way.

Some folks will always favor the underdog, the new kid on the block, or the seeming "disruptor." The truth of the matter is that the shopping game, be it Holiday Season or throughout the year, has to begin and end with the consumer making a purchase.

Consumers are tribal in nature, and will continue to march to the bazaar. At the same time, they will seek value, convenience, time savings, and selection that certain sites will offer them. Those consumers are smart enough to figure out whether brick & mortar or online best meets their needs over the holidays.

As the Prosper Insights & Analytics October Monthly forecast, Holiday Gifts this year will decrease -1.9% on a year-over-year basis. That same Monthly survey forecast 97 million shoppers on Black Friday, and 129 million shoppers on Cyber Monday. Based on the figures released this morning, those numbers developed from consumer plans are holding up. The share fight for the season is on. The best merchants will win.

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Roger Saunders, Managing Director, Prosper Business Development

Watching the news over Thanksgiving and the following days, one thing came to mind...is this really news? Is this country so caught up in shopping that every news broadcast features segment after segment on Thanksgiving/Black Friday et al? The message is a sad one.

More to the question, however, the reports that I watched seemed quite even handed. I saw the pictures of people lining up for a store opening (ugh!), but with that, interviews with shoppers who seemed to enjoy the experience.

I did have to smile at one Thanksgiving interview with a fellow who explained how awful the idea of Thanksgiving opening is and how it ruins the "family holiday." The ironic part is that he was standing in a store giving the interview. It occurred to me that he would have rather been home watching football with the "family."

I also noted the story about two sisters who planned to go shopping from midnight to 8 a.m. as they did the previous year. They said they spent $900+ on goods that would have cost over $2,000. Now that is a good deal for the sisters, but a pretty bad deal for the retailer.

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Gene Detroyer, Professor, Independent

There will always be stores and in all of our lifetimes, stores will outsell e-commerce on an aggregate basis. Each has its pluses and minuses and the wise retailer will operate in both channels. Media portaryals of online shopping do in fact emphasize ease and often savings, while neglecting to mention the solitary nature of shopping in this manner. On the other hand, describing in words or showing in videos and photographs the hustle and bustle of pre-holiday shopping is what media live for. How often do you see visuals, read or hear descriptions of people shopping online?

David Schulz, Contributing Editor, HomeWorld Business

Because the eTailers are getting out in front on this and publicizing the benefits of online shopping. What people are missing is that while brick & mortar still represents 90%+ of US retail sales, $250B+ will be transacted online in the US this year. That's a significant carve out and that number is only increasing.

Traditional brick & mortar retailers have been slow to roll out their omni-channel retailing capabilities to defend their turf. This is the first year where omni-channel retailing is getting much attention and so few if any of the capabilities are mature. The next 3-5 years will show if traditional retailers can really start to differentiate the in-store customer experience. If not, the next decade is going to be a tough one for brick & mortar retailers, as well as the commercial real estate industry.

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Bill Davis, Director, MB&G Consulting

There are two major deficits to bricks retailing: 1. The capital cost of buildings and inventory, particularly of the massive amount of merchandise that rarely sells, but is necessary to maintain the "attractiveness" of the store - just in case someone needs it. Online is literally slaughtering bricks as far as the long tail is concerned, and the "merchant warehouseman" mindset of bricks retailers seems incapable, mostly, of making a rational, scientific response to this issue. And that is the other problem - mindset.

Bricks retailers actually have a lot of advantages, most of which they either ignore or squander. Here's a detailed perspective: "Selling Like Amazon... in Bricks & Mortar Stores!"

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Herb Sorensen, Ph.D., Scientific Advisor TNS Global Retail & Shopper, Adjunct Senior Fellow, Ehrenberg-Bass Institute

Black Friday died in 2013.

With all of the stores now opening on Thanksgiving Day, there will be less mystique, and lines in store on next year's traditional "Black Friday." Next year it will become "Black Week." For online e-tailers, "Black Friday" has already become Black November.

The smart retailers must evolve to an omni-channel solution using their web site for deals, and their stores for what they should do best - experience.

If retail stores only slash their margins to drive traffic through prices for a day, or even a week, they are doomed long term.

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Chris Petersen, PhD, President, Integrated Marketing Solutions

How many online buyers really use their "saved" shopping time to cherish their family and friends?

Why do so many buyers torture themselves enduring wind, rain, snow, uncivil crowds and the darkness of night to get to a B&M store for outlandish bargains on Black Friday and that weekend?

There's a war going on and the propaganda machines of the online sellers are working overtime to change the traditional shopping paradigm. That's the pervading objective for this current power play. Does this remind you of the Washington model?

It seems like there are those of us who prefer to shop from a screen and others who enjoy shopping in the mainstream of humanity as a great many of us are getting lazier. Next someone will create a shopping paradigm where they will decide for us what we we want to buy - how and where.

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Gene Hoffman, President/CEO, Corporate Strategies International

The first time I bought gifts for holiday online, I remember thinking "I'll never fight the crowds again." And although I still get out to retail as much as possible, that thought has held true.

IMO, the physical store is at its worst when it's over-stocked, over-crowded, and under staffed. I.e: Black Friday. Why go? I'm sure most of the deals and the goods themselves are either still there or there online, for sure.

I take my family bowling on Black Friday; we have a ton of fun (Black Bowling).

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Lee Peterson, EVP Creative Services, WD Partners

The question comes down to the words "unfairly portrayed" and anyone - and for that matter, any business or industry - that doesn't like what the media is saying about it usually screams "unfair!"

The bottom line is that different shoppers have different preferences. Some like the chaos and the adrenaline rush that comes with mixing it up with other shoppers, and others prefer the serenity of shopping at home in their PJs. These choices are likely guided less by what a shopper WANTS to do and more by what they DON'T WANT to do.

Me? I hate the chaos. My wife loves it.

So, like most shoppers, we will each do some of both.

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Eric Chester, Keynote Speaker, Author, Reviving Work Ethic, LLC

All holiday shopping is not created equal! Black Friday is considered a game by many. They know what they are getting into and they go for 'the find' and 'the deal' with bragging rites!

There are certainly plenty of other days during the year that consumers can shop in stores and still get great deals and great finds.

My young, married nieces and nephews were dressed for bear on Black Friday with cell phones in hand and strategies to divide and conquer. I guess that was me once upon a time, sans the cell phone. OMG how did we ever find each other back then?

It's all about what you want. Many of the above mentioned relatives had bought lots of stuff online but these were the things they wanted to see, touch, dig for, find something unexpected! They had a blast then went for shrimp po-boys on the beach! All in a day's play!

Lee Kent, Brings Retail Executives Together to Meet.Learn.Profit, RetailConnections

Unfortunately the negative actions of a few folks are the perfect news fodder. With online shopping, there's nothing to show. And positive stories about physical store shopping - where are the ratings in that?

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Matt Schmitt, President & Chief Experience Officer, Reflect

Not sure what conclusion to draw from this experience BUT I did go shopping - to real stores - today and had only one problem when I chose some boots but the store didn't have my size. Saleslady offered to order them online for me but I confidently declined, saying I could do it myself. Got home and for the past several hours haven't been able to get onto the website.

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Bernice Hurst, Contributing Editor, RetailWire

We know that sensational news grabs people's attention. So does drama and conflict. (See reality television.) At the same time national retailers have done the same with Black Friday.

I think there were a lot of positive stories about physical store shopping. It just wasn't about Black Friday, but rather on Small Business Saturday. Kudos to American Express for creating it.

Interesting point there. When Small Business Saturday first started the credit was $25. Now it's only $10. But I was offered a $25 credit for shopping on Amazon on Cyber Monday. Another conflict...another story.

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Doug Fleener, President and Managing Partner, Dynamic Experiences Group

As much as there may be advantages to in-store shopping, such as the instant gratification of taking your purchases home with you, or browsing for books, jewellery, clothing, bath products, or any sort of product that you may want to see, touch or smell, presumably the prevailing negative sentiment during the holiday season in particular is due to the associated inconveniences, such as finding parking and negotiating crowds.

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Alexander Rink, CEO, 360pi

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