Brick-and-Mortar Retail Is Dying and Maybe Returning to THIS Will Save It

“Please be on your best behavior,” my mother said as she smoothed my hair. “We want to show respect.”

She pushed the revolving door and we were swept inside.


My senses erupted. A pianist sat playing on the most gorgeous grand piano I’d ever seen. Exotic chocolates rested behind a glass case and a uniformed salesperson offered samples. Savory aromas wafted from the restaurant upstairs, and each item I saw seemed meticulously placed…each item had purpose.

I realize I’ve reached the age where memories become rose-tinted…I certainly had my share of negative experiences as my mother dragged me from department to department, but I think what I’ve described is fairly accurate. Shopping in a department store used to be an experience.

And as retail fails all around us, I can’t help but think that we can learn a lesson from the past.

In the last few months, JC Penney, Sears, and Macy’s have closed hundreds of stores. Stocks for Urban Outfitters and American Eagle are down, too, so it’s not just Grandma’s stores that are struggling.

If, as most economists agree, one of the biggest enemies of brick-and-mortar retail is online shopping, why have so few stores gone back to offering the one thing a website can’t give its customers?

Why must we endure lousy lighting, poor service, and rack after rack of cheap, disposable clothing?

Clothes that were once displayed proudly are now crammed into racks by employees who seem miserable.

Listen. The number of shopping centers we have in this country is not sustainable. I think we all realize that by now. But why can’t we return the remaining stores to their former glory?

Book stores seem to have figured it out. When Amazon caught fire (see what I did there, Kindle enthusiasts?) in the early 2000s, many book stores went under. It broke my heart…and Meg Ryan’s, too.  But the stores that survived understood that a highly trained staff, well-placed sofas, a fireplace, and a cafe could really keep the customers coming in.

Department stores–at least the ones in my middle market midwestern town–went in the opposite direction. Salespeople pushed credit cards harder, the merchandise became cheaper, and the cafes were ripped out in favor of more racks of crappy goods. They put money into their (not so great) websites instead of into the little things that impact customers.

Many bookstores failed in the wake of Amazon, but those that survived realized people needed more than the cheap books they could get online.

When I worked at Hudson’s in college (dream job, people), we were taught that customers would always remember “the intangibles.” They trained us to make the customer experience a special and memorable one. They realized that while the “guest” may have been in to purchase a pair of shoes, she would go home remembering how good it felt to be in our store.

Okay, this is in Paris. But still. We can do better, American retailers!

I mean, listen. I’m not a big lover of the retail industry. I think we’re drunk on materialism and that we could use a good intervention in this country.

But for those stores that make it, I offer this advice:  get yourself a piano and make your customers feel special. Because Amazon can give us a lot of things, but they can’t give us goosebumps.