While speaking on a panel at Future of Retail panel at the GeekWire Summit in Seattle yesterday, CEO Nadia Shouraboura of Hointer — a company that aims to simplify retail and make it more accessible and efficient in today’s Web-obsessed world — said that reports of the demise of bricks-and-mortar retail are premature.
“When you hear that argument, replace the word ‘shopping,’ and ‘retail,’ with the phrase ‘having sex,’” Shouraboura, a former Amazon exec, suggested. “[Shopping and sex] have a lot of similarities. More and more people are going online to have sex — I mean, sex sites are growing faster than Amazon. And, it’s available 24/7. Now, do we really believe that… you can finish the thought.”
While her statement apparently received some laughter from the audience and fellow panelists, her analogy may not be terribly far-fetched. For some, yes, the online experience has replaced physical intimacy or given them a way to deal with sexual urges in an immediate and private way that doesn’t involve the usual hassles of dating (and which probably won’t get them arrested for solicitation). But most people will still ultimately crave real physical relationships with other adults, something the online experience simply can’t provide (yet!).
Likewise, online shopping allows consumers to get around the unpleasant parts of shopping — traffic, hoping the store has the item in stock, packing it into your car, waiting in line — but often leaves out those elements that make shopping enjoyable to many people: Visiting a new store, being out with friends, impulse buys, and most importantly, walking out the door with your purchase.
This is why both big box retailers and huge e-tailers are rushing to find some ideal combination of the two. Amazon knows customers love its prices, but sometimes they are willing to go to the store if they need something right away. And so it is expanding same-day delivery (and of course has been hugely successful with e-books, streaming video, other digital items that the customer can access immediately).
Meanwhile, Walmart and others know that Amazon shoppers have been spoiled by not having to scour shelves or stand in line behind other customers. So the nation’s largest retailer is testing a wide range of things, like in-store lockers where customers can pick up items ordered online, or maybe paying vetted customers to deliver online orders to nearby shoppers.
So, much in the same way the Internet has changed public perception and understanding of all things sexual, it is informing and altering the way we shop. Perhaps someday computers will be so sophisticated that users will be unable to differentiate between virtual and real world experiences, but until that point, we’ll still need retail stores (and other humans) to fulfill our desires.