Every November for the last 20 or so years, the US business press will run the same scary stories about how consumers are buying more goods online at the expense of retail stores.
“In the future”, they say, all so-called brick-and-mortar stores will go extinct, and we’ll make all of our holiday purchases via Amazon.com. It’s like a ghost story told round the autumn campfire that everyone knows by heart, but enjoys hearing again strictly for the joy of the telling.
Last year was no exception. On Thanksgiving night, our local news anchor stared gravely into the camera to warn us that we consumers were now “show-rooming”– a dastardly new practice in which we (all of us, supposedly) would examine goods at a local retailer, only to then go outside to the car park and purchase the same object online for a lower price. Our fickleness was going to doom the American economy (or something like that; I got bored and muted it). In actuality, December’s analysis of our November consumer spending showed that we were only off of 2013’s numbers by… half a per ent. Nothing of significance.
I don’t buy into the annual doom-and-gloom predictions. Never have. That said, I have noticed a trend that affects both online and retail sales this year: I’m seeing a lot more interest in expert interaction before a sale gets made. It’s odd; the more that we have access to consumer reviews and product use data, the more that we distrust what we see online, and desire a live expert’s analysis.
Case in point: rather than buy my whisky online for Thanksgiving dinner, I drove out to my favourite spirits retailer and had a long chat with our local expert at Spec’s. Understand, I’ve visited the distilleries on Islay and have fairly strong opinions about what whiskies I like. I’ve cut peat, turned barley, and sampled spirits right from the barrel. I probably know more about Scotch varietals than 90 per cent of my fellows. Rather than buy based on my experience alone, I spent half an hour chatting with our store’s resident scholar about new offerings from India and Japan, and how they compared with brands and varietals that we’d both tried. I valued his insight, and I bought from his shop rather than from an online seller.
While the gentleman and I went down the aisle discussing different options, a half dozen other shoppers joined in with their own questions. People were hungry for well-formed opinions, and wanted the opportunity to ask probing questions. The gentleman graciously answered all of us as best he could. Since he works on salary (instead of on a sales weasel’s commission), he had no vested interest in a particular product – and didn’t feel pressured to make a sale. He was paid for his expertise and willingness to engage with customers.
It doesn’t matter if you’re buying something as small as a meal or as large as a yacht – unless you’re an expert on the product, you value the insight of someone who has more experience of what you’re buying than you do, and who is willing to give you the unfiltered truth about the products under consideration. I suspect that we’ll see a great deal more of this: product experts with no brand bias that are funded by retail locations to educate on purchases that may just as well be conducted online as in the store. Over the long haul, both the store and the manufacturer will see increased sales and much stronger customer loyalty and satisfaction.