Rediscovering bricks and mortar

  • Article by: STEPHANIE CLIFFORD , New York Times
  • Updated: December 18, 2012 - 8:49 PM

Outside the virtual world is a real one where retailers can sell stuff, too.

Andy Dunn was fierce about the Internet-only model of his apparel company, Bonobos, after helping to found it in 2007. He gave a speech, "The End of Apparel as We Know It," arguing that stores were a bad economic decision. As he told a news channel in 2009: "We keep men out of retail stores when we know that men fundamentally don't enjoy shopping."

How times have changed.

Recently, Dunn was looking with satisfaction around a Bonobos store, one of six the company will open this year. "I was pretty puritanical about e-commerce only," he said, but found that about half of would-be customers would not order apparel online because they wanted to feel the merchandise. E-commerce is growing fast, he added, but "that doesn't mean the offline world is going away -- it just means it's changing."

After years of criticizing physical stores as relics, even e-commerce zealots are acknowledging there is something to a bricks-and-mortar location. EBay and Etsy are testing temporary stores, while Piperlime, the Gap Inc. unit that was online-only for six years, opened a SoHo store this fall. Bonobos plans to keep opening stores, and Warby Parker, the eyeglass brand, will soon open a permanent location.

The companies say they are catering to customers who want to see what they are buying in person, and who see shopping as a social event. As they build the physical locations, though, the retailers are reimagining some long-established rules -- carrying less inventory, having fewer staff members and embracing small and out-of-the-way locations. In the process, they are creating what could be a model for efficient in-store operations.

The online retailers are now, in effect, creating their own showrooms, after complaints from physical retailers that their stores were being treated as displays for items that customers then bought for less on the Web.

Dunn said the store idea stemmed from the headache of ordering clothes online.

"We were hearing, more and more, 'I want to try this on before I buy it,'" he said. And though Bonobos suggested that customers order multiple sizes, that didn't fit with the ethos of good service he was trying to build for the company. "I always felt a little fraudulent saying that. Clicking on six sizes and having them shipped to me is not a great experience," he said.

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