Once upon a time, an upstart retailer arrived on the scene, delivering just about anything a family could possibly desire, straight to their door — before going on to reinvent and dominate the retail landscape in this country in a way never before seen.
That company, as everyone surely knows, was of course Sears, Roebuck & Co.

Sears went from selling watches (no, really) to full-on mail-order catalog kings, to brick-and-mortar giant in a way that I, a child of the ’70s, never fully appreciated until recently — despite the fact that I pored over their yearly Christmas Wishbook just like every other kid I knew.

It’s interesting to note that, despite the way Amazon appears to be a burgeoning Colossus looming over the retail world, its domestic revenue is still not even half what Sears’ was in its heyday (adjusting for today’s dollars). Imagine a retailer making up a full 1 percent of the U.S. GDP becoming essentially irrelevant in roughly half a century.

For many analysts, observers and pundits, the Sears story serves as a kind of moral or object lesson to Amazon, a kind of warning of things to come if the company doesn’t make better decisions in its own future — and yes, it is that. But I also see the Sears story as a fascinating reverse-parallel to what seems to be going on in a bigger-picture sense in retail today, with a bit of a twist.

Sears started by delivering, then got everyone to come to the store to pick their own order and schlep it home with them. The experience, at first, was looking through the catalog, fantasizing about having these fantastic items in one’s home, and then having them delivered. The experience then became traveling to the store, where other people also were, and touching and feeling the merchandise before buying it and taking it home.

The experience once again is increasingly becoming looking at the “catalog” online, fantasizing about having these fantastic items in one’s homes, and then having them delivered. But, and this is a big but, the experience today *also* very much seems to be about going to the store, touch and feeling the merchandise … then having it delivered to your door, whether by the store you’re in or by a competitor with a better price.

Retailers and grocers from Costco to Walmart either have jumped or are jumping on the home-delivery bandwagon already. But I’m thinking more along the lines of the retail endless aisle kiosks that allowed shoppers to place orders in-store and then have the items delivered to their home. It seems more and more stores have been doing the same lately, offering to sell items (both in and out of stock there at the store) and have them delivered to a shopper’s home. RetailCustomerExperience.com Editor Judy Mottl called it “a new wave of retailing” in a recent email conversation about the subject.

Three years ago, at an event put on by the ICX Association’s predecessor, the Digital Screenmedia Association, a speaker foretold exactly what seems to be happening now. Christina Moore, then senior manager of shopper insights at Frito-Lay North America and now director of global insights and portfolio growth strategy for PepsiCo, said at the 2014 DSA Symposium in Dallas that she saw a future in which brick-and-mortar stores would have the same or slightly smaller physical footprint they do now, but with fewer SKUs and smaller amounts of space devoted to inventory — and more space devoted to experiential areas to engage shoppers, to build brand relationships with shoppers, and to let them then order and have their items delivered at home. Moore’s comments stuck with me then and still do, especially now they seem to be coming true.

Perhaps Sears should have tried that when Wal-Mart and its heavily data-driven approach started running away with its market share. Whether or not that would have worked back then, the lessons of Sears then and Amazon now, as it begins getting into the brick-and-mortar world, certainly should be instructive to retailers:

Change is constant, and that holds true for the *kinds* of experiences that resonate with shoppers. Better stay on top of that wave.

Image courtesy of iStock.

Christopher Hall

Christopher Hall is the Managing Director of the ICX Association. As the former editor of both DigitalSignageToday.com and KioskMarketplace.com, he brings years of experience as a reporter and analyst of the interactive technology space to bear in his role as he works to move the interactive customer experience technology sector forward.

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