Rob Gehr

The end is near for “brick and mortar” retail. That’s what many in the retail industry keep shouting.

We know this because the competition is confidently crowing: “Goods can be delivered to your door anywhere in the United States for less than they can be procured from your local dealer.”

Some so-called visionaries and experts have made the claim that “…our goods are as a rule of a higher grade than those carried by the average retailer.” They add that “…careful comparison will convince you that we can furnish you more and better goods for your dollar than you can obtain from any other establishment in the United States.”

With claims like these, it’s only a matter of time until shoppers will never again need to take the time and trouble to visit a retail store for their goods. Right?

Wrong! Believe it or not, these quotes are from the 1897 Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalogue. It was published 120 years ago – and more than a quarter of a century before Sears decided to open its own “brick and mortar” retail store.

So what’s the difference between the catalogues of yesterday and the online retailers of today?

The difference is more associated with the medium and the speed of delivery than with the product selection. The early Sears Roebuck catalogues sold everything from kitchen appliances and livestock to cars and houses. It’s not much different than the seemingly infinite number of items available on the web today.

While there may be differences in minutia of details, the big picture shows that retailers should keep brick and mortar in their strategic plans for growth.

Sears Roebuck started out as a mail order company but realized that it needed to interact with its customers better to remain successful. Isn’t Amazon following in similar footsteps? The retail giant that was so intimidating is now beginning to purchase physical stores and plan its “ground game.”

Wait! Am I talking about Amazon? Or Sears Roebuck again?

None of this means that retailers with physical stores do not need to be worried. Anytime a new, bigger player enters the retail arena, everyone needs to be prepared for the impact. What I am suggesting is that physical stores will always be a part of our shopping experience.

Will they need to evolve? Absolutely!

Will they go away? Not if adapting successfully to the changing retail environment.

We can all name dozens of retail companies which have dropped out of the marketplace. Some are due to competition, others due to poor management and some just ran out of energy.

This is a fact. The “law of the jungle” still rules and the strongest and fittest still do survive.

So let’s focus on how retailers can design and build the best “physical” stores for tomorrow’s consumers, or be prepared to be relegated to annals of history.

Retail customers want the convenience and comfort of online shopping coupled with the instant gratification and emotional stimulation of the shopping environment.

Let’s give it to them.

Robert Gehr, AIA, NCARB leads the Retail Division of Larson Design Group serving nationally known clients including, among others, Tuesday Morning, CVS, Party City and Dollar Tree/Family Dollar. Contact him at rgehr@larsondesigngroup.com.

ArizonaNew YorkOhioPennsylvaniaWest Virginia