Is retail becoming a relic?

To survive, brick-and-mortar stores should make it easier and more pleasant for customers

Why are retailers trying so hard to put themselves out of business? Go to any mall or downtown area and look at all the empty storefronts.

No doubt Amazon and other online retailers have dealt many a mortal blow. Online retailers have lower overheads. You can’t compete with them on price, but you can provide something they can’t provide. It’s called service, and many brick-and-mortar retailers are doing their very best to eliminate it.

Take self-checkout, for instance. Did you want to become a cashier when you grew up? Probably not, but when you go into a store nowadays, there are often long lines for a cashier, but if you want to do it yourself, you can do it right away.

Think about this: You’ve just been hired for the grand sum of $0.00 per hour and no benefits. What happened to the minimum wage? When you become your own cashier, you receive no discount for doing their work. They often have a cashier in the middle to help anyone who gets into a jam. She — and it’s almost always a she — has no idea she’s helping to eliminate her job.

No question, price is important, but so is service, and this is what many retailers tend to forget.

Remember when you could go into a department store, shop around and someone would approach you with the words, “Can I help you?” And, yes, that person would actually be capable of helping you. Nowadays, we look for someone we can ask, and if we ever find him or her, they don’t seem to know anything.

There are many advantages to shopping online:

 • You can do it in your pajamas at all hours of the day or night.

 • You don’t have to wait in line.

 • You don’t have to listen to terrible music.

 • You don’t have to worry about being run over by a shopping cart.

 • The website may, in fact, be friendlier than some cashiers.

If I were a retailer, I would as myself how I can make people come to my store and actually buy something, not just look? In my experience, I haven’t found many retailers who seem to be asking themselves this question and trying to do something about the answers they find.

Brick-and-mortar retailers can’t possibly lower their costs to compete on price with online retailers. But they can capitalize on the advantages they do have:

 • You can feel it and touch it, even try it before you buy.

 • You can have it right away. You can take it home with you.

 • The salespeople can make you feel delighted you came in and dealt with them.

 • If for some reason it doesn’t work for you, returns are easy.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that, like many others, I have examined a product in which I was interested in a brick-and-mortar store and then bought it online. But — and this is a heavy but — I’ve never done this when someone in the store approached me and was helpful. Somehow, I feel honor-bound to buy it from them, and I don’t think I’m alone.

And just when retailers figured things couldn’t get worse, Amazon just opened a brick-and-mortar store in Seattle. There are no cashiers. You get the Amazon app on your smartphone, touch a scanner on the way in, pick up what you want and leave. You’re Amazon account is billed. There are no checkout lines.

I can’t imagine the folks in Bentonville aren’t more than a little worried about this. Instead of trying to force their customers to become unpaid cashiers like Walmart and so many other retailers have done, Amazon just eliminated the function.

In Asia, there are stores taking it one step further. You scan what you want in the aisles, and on your way out, you’re handed your shopping all neatly packaged for you.

Today, Walmart sits on top of retail, as Sears once did. If they’re smart, they’ll pay attention and realize they can fall even faster than Sears did.

The key is to make it easier and more pleasant for customers, not to try to force them to do your work.

Ronald J. Bourque, a consultant and speaker from Windham, has had engagements throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. He can be reached at 603-898-1871 or