Remember the era known as the “dot-com boom”? Friends was on the air, Bill Clinton was President of the U.S., and Apple was known for simply making computers.
It was also a time when brick-and-mortar stores were in a panicked state because the ease of online shopping was gaining popularity. Stores were nervous that ecommerce would completely take over, and in some ways, they weren’t wrong: ecommerce did revolutionize the shopping experience as we know it today. Ecommerce changed the space much in the same way apps like Uber recently disrupted the taxi industry.
Fast forward about 15 years, and there are numerous successful e-tailers who have recently made the opposite shift — from online to brick and mortar. Internet darlings including Amazon, Warby Parker, Pintrill, and Frank + Oak have made this transition, just to name a few.
Let’s take a look at how each of these ecommerce brands made the move from just URLs to physical stores.
Photo Credit: Amazon
Amazon is arguably one of the giants that spawned the ecommerce revolution. When it launched back in 1994, it was one of the major players that made ecommerce a legit business, giving it clout and credibility. Today, Amazon is the largest Internet-based retailer in the world.
After about 20 years as the ultimate purveyor of, well, everything, Amazon has set its sights on physical bookstores with the launch of its first bookstore this past spring, in the University Village Mall in Seattle, its city of origin.
According to an article in The New York TImes, titled “A Trip Through Amazon’s First Physical Store,” the second location is coming to San Diego shortly at a mall near the University of California.
So, what’s Amazon’s strategy here?
For starters, Amazon is focusing on the product that first made it famous: books.
Despite the ease and lower price associated with purchasing books online or as eReader versions, people still appreciate the browsing experience and the tangible, sensory elements that come with bookstore visits. Don’t mistake the Amazon bookstore for your usual bookstore chain, though: For starters, the books are displayed with the covers facing up, rather than “spine” up. And the selection is much more curated and edited, offering far fewer title options than your average bookstore. There are also review cards under each book, featuring Amazon.com’s customer rating and reviews for many of the tomes on their shelves.
In addition to books, Amazon’s devices are available in store for browsers to explore and test drive during their visit.
According to retail strategist and founder of Retail Prophet Doug Stephens: “The ‘bookstores’ are Trojan horses aimed at promoting their device sales. Devices like Echo and Kindle are the gateway to the entire Amazon ecosystem and precisely what Amazon wants to expose store shoppers to. Books were just an easy product format with which to lead the push into the physical realm with.”
So apparently, we shouldn’t judge a store launch by its cover.
Amazon’s bookstore is the perfect gateway to its spinoff devices, and ultimately all of Amazon’s online offerings.
Photo Credit: Warby Parker
The popular glasses brand launched online in 2010 as a socially conscious company, thanks to its “buy a pair, give a pair” promise.
Warby Parker made its mark as a destination for affordable and stylish eyewear, and its tight brand voice, image, and blog content helped it gain traction.
Since opening its first store in 2013 — a flagship location in New York’s SoHo neighborhood — its store count stands at approximately 30 locations, with the majority in the continental U.S., as well as one international location in Toronto, Canada.
Before making its first foray into brick-and-mortar locations, it tested out the “pop-up” concept with showrooms and displays within smaller boutiques (such as at the Standard Hotel in Miami and Los Angeles), and had fun with activations like a biking street team in Miami peddling Warby Parker glasses during international art fair Art Basel.
1) Test with pop-ups: According to Melissa Gonzalez, founder of pop-up architecture firm The Lion’esque Group, “Warby Parker dipped its toes in physical retail with unconventional avenues such Warby Parker mobile school buses. This allowed them to test retail before committing to brick-and-mortar spaces.”
Gonzalez explains: “A pop up is much more than just a sales channel. It's an opportunity to collect data, learn, educate, etc. Via pop-ups, brands can test locations within a country, state, or city. They can learn about foot traffic, dwell times, conversion rates, and compare [shopping] cart sizes to online sales. Customers become a huge focus group for brands and retailers. And although it takes a budget, the capital commitment is limited before committing to [more expensive] long-term leases.”
2) Stick to a tightly branded store experience: Stephens credits Warby Parker’s strong branded experience as a major factor behind its successful expansion into physical stores.
“For Warby Parker, the store is really a living embodiment of the online site and reinforces the unconventional nature of the brand.”
The Warby Parker store experience is a perfect reflection of the digital experience it offers: it features “quirky cool” decor, Warby Parker-approved books for purchase, and a photo booth for snapping and sharing how glasses fit, for those shopping solo.
If you’re unsure about your first foray into physical retail, you can test the market with a pop-up shop. And when you do decide to go multi-channel, focus on brand synergy during your expansion into brick-and-mortar locations.
Photo Credit: Pintrill
This brand has been the purveyor of pins since it launched as an online destination in 2014. Although more of a “niche” item, pins have been experiencing a major fashion and pop cultural resurgence as of late. Pintrill is viewed as the leader of the pin pack, with high-profile collaborations with the likes of Perry Ellis, Roc Nation, and an upcoming set of Nike pins.
Pins are now adorning everything from denim jackets to baseball caps and backpacks, as both a form of expression and a way to add a unique touch to your look. Consider it the real-life equivalent of tacking on emojis to your social media captions and texts (side note: the “100” and fire emojis were two of Pintrill’s initial top sellers).
Jordan Roschwalb, who started the company with co-founders Doni Gitlin, and Andrew Yung, decided to translate the Pintrill world to a physical location this past May with a “pin boutique” in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
The boutique is a true pin lover’s paradise, with a display for collectors to trade vintage pins, and racks of curated
In an interview with Racked, Roschwalb says it best: “...Pins deserve to be exhibited. Nobody gave them a place to be rooted [so] this is it. It can grow from here.”
According to Jed Wexler, CEO of 818 Agency (an agency that brings creative and digital marketing talent to the B2B space), Pintrill is riding the wave of a trend and doing it right.
“I don't think it's risky for brands [like Pintrill and Warby Parker] to do offline stores because they are so good at content and creating a unique niche voice based on killer designs combined with pricing. There's a ‘dopeness’ factor with brands like Pintrill and Warby Parker that is both intangible and quite measurable.”
It helps when a brand identifies a trend and leverages it to create an aura of “coolness” — and in the right context, this can be carried over from the online world to an offline storefront.
Frank + Oak
Photo Credit: Frank + Oak
The menswear e-tailer launched in 2012 as an online destination for premium threads at affordable prices. Three years later, it opened its first brick-and-mortar location in downtown Montreal (the retailer's hometown) and has since expanded to a total of 13 locations (three of which are in the U.S.).
Frank + Oak also underwent a rebranding this past May, modifying its name and logo by replacing the ampersand (&) with a “plus sign” (+), making it Frank + Oak. It also launched a mobile app this spring, featuring video content, a personalized experience thanks to recommendations via a “live chat” feature, and even same-day delivery, all in an effort to make the shopping experience truly multi-channel.
It’s interesting to note that Frank + Oak features rich content on its website — elevated editorial of a journalistic caliber that rivals some popular men’s publications — which has helped strengthen its branding experience and positioning as a men’s fashion destination. This same branding is noticeable at the physical locations, with in-store cafes, hip barber shops and an “apothecary” section displaying its private label of grooming products called Balsem.
Stephens explains: “For Frank + Oak, the store was really less about showcasing what the company sells and more about creating a brand statement.”
"Frank + Oak’s concept stores are spaces that promote engagement between customers and the brand that goes well beyond a simple transaction. We’re offering an experience that connects the digital and physical experience seamlessly and in ways that actually solve customer challenges.”
Creating a brand experience within a physical store location is a critical component to success.
Tips on Taking Your Online Store Offline
This handful of brands that have made the successful transition from clicks to bricks is further proof that the online versus physical store debate is dead. Both domains are complementary ways of bringing a brand to life in a competitive retail world, and the two go hand-in-hand.
Thinking of taking your online shop offline? If you’re considering the leap into physical retail, here’s some advice from each of our experts to consider when creating your brick-and-mortar strategy:
Human Interaction is Necessary
Melissa Gonzalez explains: “Building long-standing customer relationships is a multi-prong approach. Nothing fully replaces human interaction via mobile or digital. A physical presence allows for a deeper level of engagement and learning for both the customer and the brand, and people still crave human interactions.
E-tailers can use a physical space in different ways than in the past: Pop ups and storefronts can be experience centers to tell your brand story using innovative methods like immersive exhibits and virtual reality.
A Store Allows for a Full Brand Experience
Stephens elaborates: “First, having a physical store presence has been proven to promote greater online sales within the same market. Secondly, it’s difficult for a brand to allow customers to fully experience their brand and products without a physical presence.”
Here’s an added bonus, according to Stephens:
“Physical stores make great supply chain lubricant and can reduce the cost of shipping and returns. Having a central point to consolidate orders or to process customer returns can have a quantum effect on reducing supply chain expenditures.”
Rich Content: An Important Part of Your Marketing Strategy
Wexler clarifies: “Frank + Oak, Warby Parker, and Pintrill — since they each started — have done an incredible job telling their stories online, clearly and truthfully stating what makes them unique, and being absolute wizards at social media engagement, user acquisition, and engagement. They are also really good at all things tech: People are hungry to experience each of these offline because they took their time to develop their audiences.”
When building your marketing strategy for your storefront, don't forget to create a plan for rich content that communicates your brand story in a compelling way. And it doesn't take a huge budget to do content right — learn how to craft content marketing campaigns on a shoestring budget.
A Pop-up Shop is a Great Testing Ground for Long-Term Physical Retail
You can bridge the divide between digital and physical shopping with a temporary retail space. Try a pop-up shop first, like a booth at a festival or craft fair, before taking the leap into a traditional storefront.
Among the many reasons pop-ups are a great option is that they’re a great testing ground. You’ll be able to gauge how your product fares in a region and measure customer reactions before going full-force with a physical store expansion. E-tailers like Glossier and BaubleBar have both experimented with pop-ups without making the leap into brick and mortar — at least, not yet.
To explore temporary retail as an option, check out our video series on how to create a successful pop-up shop.
A Final Word
The jump from digital to physical doesn't have to be an overwhelming experience. Following a few of the aforementioned examples could help you set up your storefront in a snap.
You never know: once you try a physical store, you might see your brand click with the right audience.
Have any other advice for retailers who are considering the transition from digital to physical? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
About The Author
Karin Eldor’s experience in online publishing has led to a fascination with the digital world and retail. When she’s not scrolling through her Instagram and Snapchat feeds, she can be found poring over fashion magazines (she still loves print — shhh, it’s our secret). Follow her on Twitter.