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How Brick-and-Mortar Retailers Can Survive in a Digital World

Jonathan Bentz
Jonathan Bentz

As Amazon continues to dominate, here's how small, traditional retailers can compete.

Thinking about the future can be scary when you're unsure of your place in it. It seems things are getting worse for the retail industry as big companies like Macy's, Sears, and JC Penney close more stores every day.

Many brick-and-mortar retailers have incorporated ecommerce into their business model, and it's tough to say whether or not traditional retail locations will ever become as prevalent as they once were. Shopping malls may become a thing of the past in a world where more people than ever shop online.

Consider Amazon, one of the largest ecommerce retailers in the world. Amazon's approach to ecommerce has always been to provide a simplified shopping experience with low prices and fast shipping. Mastering the online checkout experience gave them the bandwidth to expand and become not only a massive ecommerce retailer but also a provider of cloud services, streaming entertainment and a respected tech manufacturer.

How can traditional retailers compete with that? 

It's an uphill battle, but there a few ways brick-and-mortar retailers can thrive in a world where most customers prefer shopping online.

Understand your clientele

It's time to admit that retail businesses are providing a service to their customers. The best thing a retail owner can do to elevate their business is to have an incredibly focused strategy when appealing to their ideal clientele.

If you haven't already done the following exercise or it's been several years since you've done it, now is the time to refresh your idea of your perfect customer. In the marketing world, this is what's known as creating a buyer's persona.

Create a fictional person whom you think would love the products and services found at your store. Try to define aspects of this person down to the most minute detail. For example, perhaps you own a boutique coffee shop located in the heart of an urban financial district. Because of the quality and higher prices of coffee served, your ideal buyer persona may look like this:

  • Male
  • Late 20s to early 30s
  • Holds a bachelor's or master's degree
  • Likes high-end cuisine
  • Reads a lot
  • Income: $45,000 to $100,000
  • Prefers indie music
  • Drives and eco-friendly car
  • Prefers organic food and fair-trade policies

Defining all of these little details goes a long way toward understanding your customers and then ultimately converting them to a returning customer. You can have multiple personas, but always keep at least one in mind when thinking about acquiring and retaining customers.

Create a unique, engaging experience

Love them or hate them, there's no denying that millennials make up the largest segment of shoppers, and they will continue to be the largest for many years. The most important thing you can learn from this generation is their current shopping behaviors since they will become the standard over the next few decades.

You may have heard this elsewhere, but millennials crave experiences rather than material goods. Really take that to heart, because this is probably why they would rather shop from the comfort of their own home with a few clicks. Think about the effort required to get in the car, drive to the mall, search endlessly for the item they're looking for and potentially settle for something they didn't want originally.

This is where retail owners who understand their customers have the edge over online and other big-box retailers. If you can foster an experience where customers are engaged from the beginning to the end of their visit, you can make your store future-proof.

Design a welcoming environment

If there's one thing Facebook does well, it's keeping users engaged on their platform for as long as possible. The newsfeed prioritizes certain content for users, provided it keeps them engaged and there for as long as possible. The key to Facebook's success is user engagement, and the same can be true for your store.

Because your business has a physical location, the physical appearance of your interior is one of the first things customers look at. If it's been awhile or you can't remember when the interior was last updated, it's time to get creative.

If you don't have strict branding guidelines for colors, consider using warm, inviting colors like red or orange. For extra credit, try researching the psychology behind colors and see which ones are best for creating the atmosphere you want.

You want your store to feel inviting, and this can be achieved with the right light fixtures. Lighting will have an initial impact on your customers, but don't go overboard. Too much or too little ambient light can drive folks away.

Last, consider the type of furniture you have for customers in your store. Ask yourself if what you have currently looks comfortable or if it's arranged in such a way that encourages customers to stay longer. For a combination of comfort, utility and aesthetics, some retailers offer a full line of mid-century modern furniture with great trade programs and commercial discounts.

Personalize the experience

Making the shopping experience stand out in your customers' mind will be why they come back. Part of that means giving your customers the attention they need to feel like they are being tended to.

One way to do this is to offer a discount on a future purchase if they answer a satisfaction survey. Some customers want to be waited on hand and foot; others prefer to shop in solitude. Generally, it's a good idea to make sure all customers are greeted upon entering the store but not all of them want numerous touch points to see if they need help. A survey can help you understand what customers prefer, but it can also be a good learning experience for the sales staff on how they can delight more effectively.

It's also common to offer little perks to reward customers when they come into your store. This can be in the form of discounts, but maybe something along the lines of free cups of espresso while shopping might be a nice treat. For example, if you order coffee from a Starbucks drive-thru and they notice you have a dog in the backseat, they will likely offer you a "puppocino" – a small swirl of whipped cream in a cup, at no extra cost for your furry companion.

Invest in your staff

Regardless of the future of brick-and-mortar retail, the truth is that these businesses live and die by the quality of service provided by their employees.

In a recent survey conducted by TimeTrade, 47 percent of respondents claimed that prompt service was the most important factor in a positive shopping experience. Just consider how different a shopping experience on a mobile device looks in comparison to one in a retail store. Online, customers rarely interact with sales or customer service staff unless there is an issue with a previous order.

Because shopping in a brick-and-mortar store requires human interaction, the quality of this social exchange is crucial if there's any hope of distinguishing yourself from online retailers.

Re-evaluate compensation, motivation

Retail workers are hard-working individuals who often work multiple jobs to support themselves. With more retailers closing their doors, many of these workers are finding themselves without a job and few alternatives.

For your store to thrive in this digital landscape, making sure your staff feels trusted and valued sets them up to do their jobs well and bring customers back.

Most retail workers are paid relatively low hourly rates. In cases where paying them more does not make sense, you can think of alternative ways to compensate them. Through contests and other incentive programs, you can find something which can work for you and your staff to motivate them appropriately.

If there's one idea you can borrow from larger companies, it's having special days or events specifically to honor or acknowledge the work of your staff. It would be more than ideal to make your staff feel like a family, but even just acknowledging their dedication can go an incredibly long way to strengthening your workforce.


There are certain things that will never go away even as technology becomes more integrated with our daily lives. Once you've accepted that you will be at a disadvantage when trying to keep up with online retailers, you must strengthen everything that online experiences can't give your customers and do it better.

Image Credit: William Potter/Shutterstock
Jonathan Bentz
Jonathan Bentz Member
I help companies grow by creating leads, sales, and traffic through SEO and a decade-plus of experience in the digital marketing field. The game has changed dramatically over that time - but my success has remained consistent. Currently, I serve as a Digital Marketing Manager for Direct Online Marketing, a Premier Google Partner that provides PPC, SEO, social ads, retargeting, and analytics services to clients around the globe. During my career, I have managed marketing campaigns in agency, corporate, and startup environments with trailblazing results at each stop. Highlights include: - 2000% traffic growth and a $1M annual sales pipeline from SEO for a top 500 tech firm. - Double-digit % traffic and leads growth for over 40 clients as employee no. 4 at a startup Internet marketing company. - Subscriber engagement through email marketing nearly 2x industry averages for a AAA Four-Diamond resort. If you think your business can generate more of what it needs from the digital channel, I'm ready to help you exceed your expectations. Let's connect!