Hope for Retailers That Don't Have Amazon in Their Name?

I wrote how most brick-and-mortar retailers are oblivious to the realities of shopping in 2017, and Amazon is eating their lunch. While my failed visit to the mall I wrote about in that article is representative of the majority of what I experience in retail stores, I had a couple retail visits recently that do give me a bit of hope. These, to me, are examples of how to create positive in-person retail visits in the era of Amazon.

The Idea of IKEA

First was a visit to IKEA. I wanted to pick up an ottoman and slipcover on my way home from work, the IKEA being located along a road I drive everyday. If you know IKEA, the stores are massive, with the labyrinthian showroom and corresponding warehouse, it's not exactly suited to just stopping by to pick something up. At least, it would appear that way. But IKEA makes great use of what I refer to as "convenience technology." I was able to pick out what I wanted online prior to visiting the store. IKEA then allows me to choose the store near me and provides the exact location in the warehouse where I can find the item(s) I want. So when I arrived at the store I went directly to the warehouse, found the row and section where my items were located, and I was back out to my car in less than 10 minutes. I had never used that end-to-end process before and was pretty amazed at how well it worked. In fact, the only slight flaw in the process was when I had to interact with a human. The woman at the checkout seemed pretty bored, but I don't blame her. Her job was to scan a couple barcodes and watch me use the credit card reader, neither activity really even requiring she be there. I think we can see where that will be going.

There are a few things here that make the IKEA experience unique. First, they have a very strong brand, at least with their fans. If you like IKEA, there are not a lot of places you can go to get what they offer, so their products are "sticky" from a brand perspective. While you can get some of their stuff on Amazon, most of it is only available directly from them. By adding a nice mix of convenience technology that spans the range of online shopping (and delivery if you want it) and blending that with their brick-and-mortar stores, they can offer a very wide range of customer experiences. This is a great combination that makes them difficult to disrupt.

A Store Named Albert

My next experience was at a local appliance retailer called Albert Lee Appliance. Our washing machine died, and with five people in our house we can’t be without one for too long. We had done our research and knew what brand and model we wanted, and I saw online that Albert Lee carried them. I had purchased from Albert Lee several years ago and when I visited this time I again found their store to be well organized, well staffed, and importantly, big enough but not so big that the store is overwhelming. I went over to the laundry section and there was the washer I wanted right up front. The price was clearly displayed, and it was even better than Amazon's (I checked before visiting Albert Lee). I was soon greeted by a member of Albert Lee's staff asking if they could help. I told her this was the machine I wanted and we sat down to do the purchase. All good, but what happened next was what really cemented the experience.

First, she saw on her computer that I was a previous customer. She then said that there was a sale on that machine that ended the day before, but she would be happy to offer me the sale price, $100 off what was listed. I was already happy with the price they had, and was ready to buy, but now I was not only really happy with the price, but I was really happy with Albert Lee. The purchase included delivery, which would be a few days, but I explained that I was without a washer and would really like to pick it up that day. She checked, and said unfortunately they didn't have any at the local warehouse. "But hold on," she said, "let me make a call." After five minutes and a couple calls, she was able to get the machine on a truck that would have it at a warehouse close to where I live by that afternoon. This is the human touch on a different level. She worked to make sure I not only got what I wanted, but in a way that was most convenient to me. Lowering the price and adding an extra warehouse delivery were in no way convenient to Albert Lee, but they get that by focusing on the customer I'd be way more likely to visit them first next time I need an appliance. And they're right. Competitive pricing, caring customer service, and local, same-day pickup/delivery is a great formula for competing with Amazon.

In both the IKEA and Albert Lee examples, I could have found the products online and had them delivered. But in both these cases the in-person experience was either better, or more convenient, or both. It's pretty rare that I'm able to say that about any retail store visit, but it sure is nice to see that it does exist.

About Me

Bill Pardi



I love things that just work. Born in New York, I now live in Washington State where I work at Microsoft, build things, write, and explore.