Shopping as We Know It Will Disappear

Consumers no longer need to touch and feel products in a physical store. Pro or con?

Pro: Unbeatable Convenience and Sophistication

Product research starts online. The Social Shopping Study we conducted earlier this year revealed that 83 percent of consumers are more confident about making a purchase decision when conducting research online vs. speaking to a salesperson in a store. And 79 percent report saving more time doing research online compared with in-store research.

Online tools are evolving to mirror and eventually supersede the in-store shopping experience. Today’s shoppers can access size/fit information and product uses online. Gap’s "Quick Look" feature allows users to view a product’s color and texture details. MyShape.com combines technology and customer data to enable shoppers to browse clothing matched specifically to their body types and preferences. Zappos, Sephora, and Piperlime offer free shipping on returns, allowing those customers who need to try before they buy to "road test" a product at home, while shoppers who need instant access can rely on the convenience of Amazon’s same-day delivery.

Social tools signal a game-changing force in online shopping, helping shoppers more easily reach a purchase decision validated by others online. Online, shoppers can connect with millions of people who share the same lifestyles, interests, and product needs. They can share photos of how they look in a dress with their Facebook friends and get instant feedback via the Like button. Seventy-one percent of shoppers rely on customer reviews and 57 percent rely on Q&A to conduct their online product research.

This changes the face of shopping as we know it. The convenience and depth of the online shopping experience—and powerful relevance of social networks—results in more educated shoppers whose research online has an impact on their purchases offline. Smart consumers have come to expect a more comprehensive shopping experience, and they will soon demand it.

Con: We Still Live in the Real World

Anything, everything, and more delivered to your door (with free shipping, of course) is compelling. Online shopping has changed our lives for good and for the better, but it’s a complement to, rather than a substitute for, the age-old and ubiquitous activity of "going to the shop."

There are still many products and services—food, apparel, home decoration, and so forth—with significant "nondigital" attributes that some shoppers believe need sensory inspection (touch, feel, taste, smell), making them relatively difficult to sell online. Creative online sellers can overcome these impediments in part, but not entirely, and certainly not for all segments of shoppers. "Try before you buy" still holds.

Shopping is a process. For many goods and services it requires information search, and evaluation of multiple options, before final selection of the chosen product. (Returns and post-sale service are part of the process, too.) The Internet is better suited to some parts of this process than others.

Shoppers are social creatures. Some kinds of shopping involve active or passive interaction. What is she buying? Does this look good on me? Don’t they look tasty? When we shop, we’re not "just shopping"; we’re observing, learning, updating, chatting. For many shoppers, this is part of the reason to shop. This kind of shopping need not even end in purchase—just being in the real (physical) store is all part of the fun.

Online shopping ups the ante for offline shopping. Retailers need to think hard about what makes the offline experience enticing and vital (think the Apple Store)—for products and for shoppers. Sometimes I like to order in, but still like to eat out as well.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg Businessweek, Businessweek.com, or Bloomberg LP.

Reader Comments

Tim Flowers

This debate has been going on since the first web store opened, yet "brick & mortar" stores continue to be built.

Free shipping is great, but most web stores don't offer it, and you still have the issue of potentially paying shipping for returns.

Also, shopping gets us out of the house. It gives us something to do and it allows us to interact with fellow humans, the good and the bad.

Finally, we need local stores so that merchandise is nearby. What if a cyberattack or natural phenomenon shut down internet or our power grid? How would you get your stuff from Amazon then?

Squeezebox

It all depends upon what you're buying. When I'm shopping for computer memory, online's the way to find things. When I want a new dress, I'm looking for the emotional appeal when I see it on the hangar, then on my body. If it looks bad on the rack, I won't even bother. A computer will never replace live friends who will say, "Honey, don't buy that one, try this other one instead."

Ted Sindzinski

I would argue that shopping will evolve, and that it has evolved, but not that it will go 'online' entirely, at least not in the near future.

When e-commerce was new, people predicted we would buy everything online: food, clothing, electronics, toys, cars, everything. Some of these categories have seen amazing adoption, like consumer electronics, but overall we're still at what, 8% of total retail?

There are certain benefits offline has over online and will for a long time to come -- the ability to touch, to aimlessly browse, to try, and to have truly instant gratification. As shipping evolves, some of these barriers will go away but we're a long way off to complete online purchasing. Part of shopping for many people is the browsing and the experience of exploring; online we remain very much focused on the product and knowing what you are looking for, that has to change.

Of course we have already seen a dramatic change. Nearly everything can be researched online and as the first argument from Pehr indicates, for many people this is the preferred research tool. I can only see this growing as we become more connected, reviews improve in relevancy to who we are, and social shopping expands. Then you consider mobile, kiosks, and all of the other ways that digital is starting to exist outside of just the computer and becomes very clear that we are just starting to see the research process really grow... I wouldn't be surprised to see people using QR codes to check the price or value of two types of taco shells 6 months from now.

In this way I think one can safely say the way we shop or shopped is disappearing... we want knowledgeable store associates to point the way to items and explain them, but we don't trust them to give us the whole story and with a few seconds on our iphones, laptops, or other device, we can validate their story, or disprove it. This is the evolution of shopping and the empowerment of the consumer. But we're not done... we will evolve more into consumer to consumer education and at the same time, see the retailers adapt to support and augment it.

Twelp force is helping Best Buy reach customers with expertise and suggestions. Employees still have lots of value and will have more -- companies are simply relearning how to harness it and will get much, much better at this in time.

In the end we as educated consumers want both worlds -- online knowledge, options, and information and offline experiences. And both can exist in the same space; it just takes understanding the impact of one on the other to thrive.

Nodir Ruzmatov

Soon or later we'll switch to online. It's just a matter of time.

Shaun

Interesting analysis...seems like the future of shopping is going to be defined by the merging of e-commerce and brick and mortar shopping. Consumers are getting more diligent in their product research so you can't begrudge them if they turn to the internet--it does have the best information available in one place. And with new social shopping tools out there from the likes of Google, Amazon, and CSEs like SortPrice.com, the motivation to shop online will only grow.

Michael L Schwartz

As with most things, there's good and bad to shopping on-line, and good and bad to shopping in-store. Personally, my preferance to on-line vs. in-store depends entirely on what I am buying. If I'm buying a new suit, sport coat, or dress slacks, for instance, I definately by in-store. If it's the same brand and size underwear that I've worn for many years, on-line is fine. In-store gives the option of touching, feeling, etc. On-line avoids travel to the store, looking for parking, putting up with lines, etc.

Ransome

I just purchased a camera at a big box retail. I brought it home and before opening researched on the internet. It didn't get good reviews, alternatives were offered, and the current internet price was 30% cheaper than what I had paid.

When shopping on the internet, you can avoid impulse buying that can waste some of your money allotted for consumption. If you are an impulse buyer, try using the internet to reduce your impulses or at least find the product that best fits your needs and price range. It is entirely possible to research first and then buy locally.

Mike

Online shopping and prices are only as good as the data provided. It's as real time as it gets, but real life is just much faster. I find better deals in local stores with guidance of the internet but not solely the internet. I only order online items that are brands that you can't get in stores but I still strongly support merchants as well and support local merchants.

I also try to only support fair brands that let retailers make a living instead of competing with them online and instore that is the main problem with confidence because it cuts jobs and discourages those from opening a business. People lost what team work is all about or don't want to hear it.

QR codes aren't used for pricing, yet QR codes can be found on products in stores for inventory and packing/shipping as most distributors use tag reading machines. If you use Blockbuster Express you will notice they use them on their DVDs. It's not going to be used for pricing; it's slower then traditional barcodes which are more universally read already. Yeah, Google uses QR with the Droid ads in mags and Google places.

Real World

Shopping might evolve?

Everything on the planet is in a constant state of evolution. Why would anyone think that a part of the planet would just freeze forever?

Each person can support whatever he/she wants, and the wisest will win the evolution.

I only buy from local companies that generate their own wind/solar power, and I always bring my own container (I walk, naturally). I recycle everything in my life and I floss twice a day.

Ciccio Ramos

The act of shopping means a lot more than just obtaining goods. The web world is doing great things in order to grow more, but never will substitute for the shopping experience. Now you can buy a car online and look at amazing 360° views and read hundreds of customer reviews, but nothing compares to driving a car to make the right decision. Last month I bought sunglasses online. They came on time, and they are gorgeous, but they are smaller of what I expected (and they have also 360° views). Nothing compares to wearing them and looking at the mirror to make sure they are what you want.

Safa

Well, I am no stranger to online shopping or getting online reviews about a certain product. Mainly because it gives a general view or opinion on a product, rather than me going and asking people who may or may not have used a product.

However, at the end of the day this kind of shopping is mainly for electronics, because it is something where a majority might share a common opinion.
But we cannot just simply say shopping offline is diminishing because of such ease at our fingertips. Mainly because for many of us who are shopping freaks, we wouldn't just go online and buy themselves a dress or any clothing accessory. For that, I still believe that offline shopping will still exist.

Seth Diamond

Shopping as we know it sure isn't going to disappear--but it is definitely going to change. Consumers are going to continue to flex their newly found power, thanks to the information available online. As a result, retailers and brands will respond to that with new tools, new marketing approaches, new offerings, and new brands and retail business models. Even currently thought of "untouchable" categories for ecommerce are growing businesses--Peapod and FreshDirect are both demonstrating revenue and geographic coverage growth. Brick and mortar retailers will respond with further online/offline merchandising integration and redesigned stores for emotional stimulation as much as functional fulfillment. It will continue to be a fun ride!

as i am

We enjoy the fun and human interaction when shopping at physical store. The impersonal nature of on-line purchase often leads us to outrageous buying addictions. Meanwhile, the salespeople in real-world shops sometimes act as good advisers, and accompanied friends can prevent our bad shopping habits. There is a fashion store I always stop by in spite of the high price and long distance. That is because the employees welcome me whenever I show up, and they know what kind of clothes look good on me. They even remember which items I already bought over the past three years. The clerks are like my friends and great advisers in terms of my shopping and even my private matters. The satisfaction when talking with them is not replaceable at any cost by the convenience of shopping via internet.

Ron Magliocco

There will always be a place in consumers' lives for the physical retail location. The act of shopping fulfills many basic human needs related to product discovery, selection, and purchase. Shopping is part of our DNA as humans. We need to touch and feel the products we buy, we need to see physical displays for inspiration and ideas, we need to get out of the house, and we need to be social. And sometimes we need to bring the product back when it doesn't quite fit us the way it looked on the mannequin.

So, it's not a matter of either/or, but rather and/and. The online space and the physical space complement each other in shoppers' lives. The successful companies today and in the future are the ones who embrace this blurring of lines and make it easy for consumers to engage with their brands.

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