Reversing the trend: From digital to physical stores
Kavita Kumar/St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Count Kristina Starr among the ranks of business owners who still believe in the power of bricks-and-mortar stores.
When you walk into her vintage modern furniture and home décor store at 3189 South Grand Boulevard, it feels like you’re walking onto the set of “Mad Men.” Like a dapper Don Draper might pop out at any moment and grab one of the fedoras hanging near the entrance on his way out.
After running Rocket Century as an online business for the last two years, Starr decided to take the leap from the digital to physical world and opened this store last month.
The results, so far, have been impressive: She more than doubled her sales in the first month.
“We were like, ‘Wow, this is better than expected,’” she said.
While the online business has been going well, she said it doesn’t quite replace the feeling of visiting an actual store.
“It’s a lot harder to read the customer online,” she said. “That’s not to say you can’t be successful, but there are certain things about the experience of touching and feeling it, sitting in it — the excitement of the customer — that you just can’t do when you’re online.”
In the age of Amazon and Etsy, it’s easy to discount the importance of physical stores. And all anyone in the retail world seems to be talking about these days is e-commerce, mobile shopping, points and clicks.
Still, a small but growing number of online-only retailers are beginning to open actual stores. Gap has opened about two dozen Athleta stores for its yoga and outdoor apparel brand that was previously only sold online. Last week, it also opened its first store for Piperlime, the shoes and accessories website, in New York.
Bonobos, a men’s apparel website, has partnered with Nordstrom to have its clothes sold in about 100 of its department stores.
There have even been rumors that Amazon itself, which has put a number of bookstores out of business, may be putting together plans for a store in Seattle. Imagine that!
Still, despite these examples, the larger trend will continue to be big retailers downsizing the number of stores and moving more sales online, said Jeff Green, a Phoenix-based retail consultant.
Those online retailers that are opening stores are doing so to build awareness of emerging brands, he said. But these stores are likely to be fewer in number — not in the hundreds, like their forefathers.
“Gap, for example, has really learned their lesson,” he said. “They don’t want to over-expand again. So they’re going to be very deliberate in the number of (Athleta and Piperlime) stores they choose to open.”
For Starr, her initial plan was to open a store when she was launching the business in 2010. But it was an issue of timing, finding the right location and financing.
“The goofy economy that we were in back then, banks were hesitant as far as loans,” she said.
But she’s glad she went online first, which gave her the time to work through the bugs of the website and to figure out the quirks of shipping without also having to staff a shop.
Most of her online customers have been from the East and West Coast. But after selling her wares at a couple of local events, the reception was positive enough to give her enough confidence that she had a big enough market for her goods in St. Louis.
And when she was ready to open a store, she didn’t have to take out a loan because of the success of the online business. Of course, she added, she wishes she could pay herself more money.
If there has been any drawback to having the shop, it’s the time commitment, she said. She is the only employee, so she attends it herself. But she keeps it open just five days a week, with limited hours on a couple of those days.
“So here we are,” she said, gesturing to the store around her.
Just about then, a customer, who had heard about her store from a friend on Facebook, walked in.