Old school retailers have been fighting to play catch-up with online shopping sites for years now--continually bemoaning the advent of the internet for making their valuable real estate into mere showrooms for consumers to browse in-person and then buy online for less.  However, it seems their very premise was wrong. Rather than fighting for market share by discounting prices to attract consumers, they should have been doing what they have always done best--monetize their shelf space. According to an article by Christopher Mims in The Wall Street Journal today, "Can the Internet Save the Department Store?" they have finally focused on doing just that, by essentially renting out space to internet brands who have also finally understood that they can only win so much business from afar, and thus are now hungry to find a way to cozy up to customers closer to where they live. 

The WSJ article gives all sorts of innovative examples where retailers and digital gurus have come together to marry their respective worlds in ways that will make consumers swoon: everything from cool mini-marketplaces within bigger stores that specialize in fast merchandise to fleeting concept spaces that are created to lure shoppers in with the promise of a unique and ephemeral experience.   And while this new "retail experience", as imagined by both old school retailers trying to rise from the ashes and new tech-injected brick-and-mortar stores, may be making headlines there is another reality lurking that no one seems to be talking about: the actual shopping experience still isn't what it needs to be--because bells and whistles and smoke and mirrors can only take you so far.  

Don't get me wrong, I think providing a new and exciting retail experience to the weary shopper is spot on, especially for mall-based retailers that have lost their luster. At the end of the day, however, the goal is not just to dazzle and differentiate, but also to make sales. Gimmicks may attract a crowd, but it's good old fashioned selling and service that will fill the till. And if my experience at one of the more forward-thinking department stores last week is any indicator, old school retailers are still fighting an uphill battle. 

The particular retailer to whom I'm referring is currently banking on a country club concept--one that beckons shoppers who are part of a members-only club to buy trendy new merchandise before their non-member counterparts are allowed access--and surprisingly (or stupidly, the jury's still out) at a reduced price. In the shoe department of said department store where I went to get a new shoe that would match the height of a surgical one I had been issued, there was a whole section of styles that were for "members only". On the sole of each shoe in the cordoned-off area there were two prices. $69.99 for a member to buy before her peers, and $99.99 for the rest of the population 2 weeks later. 

When the only shoe I could find that would do the trick was off-limits to me as a non-member, I offered to pay the higher $99.99 price instantly in order to leave with the shoe I needed and not have to subscribe to the membership, but a sales associate and two managers told me this was impossible, instead quoting me the rules of the velvet-roped area and offering to sign me up. I chose not to, preferring to leave empty-handed than to join the club. And with my exit went not only the $69.99 in revenues I would have spent as a member, but also the $30 additional that the store could have collected if I had been allowed to pay the higher price as a non-member and leave with the shoes that day.  The "experience" trumped the bottom line, and so, while novel, was a no-no in the playbook of generating sales and growth. 

Brick and mortar still has life left in it--and could definitely partner with players like online-only designers who push exclusivity like the drug it is, and coffee shops where a cup of joe is more a lifestyle than a drink--but in order for these unexpected marriages to actually flourish, there has to be a strong connection between experience in the ethereal sense, and experience in the practical sense. The customer is at the heart of each--and when she is served with care, she will deliver both her dollars and her devotion.