Consumer Corner: Turning the corner on retail means marrying tech, store

By MARCELLA S. KREITER  |  March 18, 2012 at 4:34 AM
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CHICAGO, March 18 (UPI) -- Surviving the retail industry has always been a harrowing experience, what with changing economic conditions and evolving consumer tastes.

But the latest wrinkle in survival strategy is more complicated than just balancing inventories and guessing what trends consumers will follow. Now retailers must figure out how to marry their brick-and-mortar operations with consumer use of the Internet.

With price comparisons at consumers' fingertips, eliminating the need to go from store to store to compare features and prices, retailers need to up their e-tailing savvy if they're going to survive in the current environment.

"We did a survey," said Perry Reynolds, vice president for marketing and trade development at the International Housewares Association. "Of the 100 biggest housewares retailers in 1995, half are gone. Gone. That's not necessarily bad. They didn't all go out of business. Some of them merged."

Among the more recent missing in action: Waccamaw, which liquidated in 2001; Linens 'N Things, which shut its doors in 2008; Marshall Field & Co., which merged with Macy's in 2005, not to mention specialty retailers such as Borders and Circuit City. Now, we hear rumbles from the likes of Sears, which is struggling to maintain market share in the face of stiff competition.

On the plus side, "we see small independents doing really well now," Reynolds said, noting just a few years ago there were fears the retail scene would be left with nothing other than Walmart, warehouse clubs and the like. He said among the more exciting developments is J.C. Penney's experimentation with not only price structure but designer brands and layout.

The changes come at an opportune time with government figures indicating the consumer is easing the purse strings as the jobs picture improves.

"We're hoping we've passed most of the negativity," Reynolds said.

Barbara Turf, president and chief executive officer of Crate & Barrel, told attendees at last week's International Housewares Association trade show making the shift from just physical stores to include e-commerce "is difficult."

"We welcome the increased business, but the online shopping experience won't replace shopping in a physical store that offers a stimulating experience. People like to touch a product, and the in-person experience cannot be replicated on a computer screen," said Turf, who is retiring in May. "Also, having a face-to-face experience with a friendly sales associate is something that cannot be replaced."

Reynolds agreed.

"There are a lot of things you just can't buy from a picture," he said.

The challenge for retailers is learning to marry the physical plant to technology.

"You have to appeal to customers in different ways. Retailers are just learning how to harness technology. They have to make certain they learn how to engage the consumer," he said.

Turf advised retailers to cater to Generations X and Y -- the two cohorts following the baby boomers.

"You are toast if you do not meet their expectations, which are high," she said. "Listen to them. Combine their wisdom with yours. Remember, it always starts with people."

Another concern will be merchandise origination.

"I am not inclined to cast China aside, but we need to find reputable partners and carefully monitor the process," she said. "China has been the go-to resource for a large percentage of resources, but the pendulum will swing. We need to look at other resources, including those from the United States. … There are business opportunities in the United States that need to be explored."

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