The Resurrection of Retail
Buying online became even more of a utility during the pandemic. But for some, IRL exchanges will always beat clicking a button.
In the eyes of some experts, the coronavirus pandemic was poised to deal the final blow to the already crumbling brick-and-mortar-retail industry. Since the early days of quarantine, millions of consumers have opted for the safety and ease of online shopping—and from 2019 to 2021, e-commerce sales grew by 50 percent. Many physical stores, however, languished. Yet as Americans have gradually returned to stores over the past year, people have rediscovered the intrinsic thrills of selecting a pristine tomato or feeling the luxe texture of a sweater while perusing through clothing racks. Shopper sentiment is trending toward in-person retail: The percentage of shoppers who feel comfortable going to malls, according to one survey, is close to a two-year high. It turns out that no matter how much time and effort people may save by online shopping, some of us will always prefer the sensations that come with buying goods in a physical store.
Stores welcome shoppers with a number of stimuli. The vibrant explosion of pink frills at Victoria’s Secret is inviting. The colorful, neat rows of makeup at Sephora can be soothing. “When you are engaging in an in-store experience, you just have more sensory inputs to deal with: You can touch, feel, smell, hear,” Chris Gray, a consumer psychologist, told me over the phone. “It creates more memorable experiences.” In contrast, purchasing online can be one-dimensional: Products materializing on your doorstep in less than a day isn’t sentimental—it is, as pointed out in this publication, infrastructure. The lack of sensory details in the e-commerce experience may be, in part, why the pendulum seems to be swinging back toward in-person retail.
Convenience buoyed e-commerce’s growth during the first year of the pandemic, but in 2021, online transactions accounted for a smaller share of overall purchasing and grew at a smaller rate than brick-and-mortar retail sales. “Research that I’ve seen across the board has shown that people still prefer in-store shopping,” Gray said. The activity also provides instant gratification. “Having to wait for items to arrive through shipping—other than Amazon, which is fairly immediate—is difficult for some people,” Angela Wurtzel, a psychotherapist who specializes in the connection between mind and body, told me. “Filling that urge immediately can be more satisfying in the store.” (Even Amazon continues to invest in in-store experiences, with its recently announced Amazon Style shop and expansion of Amazon Go stores, for instance.) The term retail therapy may sound like a cliché, but the idea does hold weight: Shopping, whether online or in person, can produce feel-good chemicals in the brain, such as dopamine. And being in a physical store can have a positive effect on our mood.
Part of the benefit of an IRL retail experience is that being able to touch, smell, or see an item before purchasing it tends to eliminate potential discrepancies between what a customer wants and what a customer gets—discrepancies that can plague e-commerce and lead to lingering feelings of remorse. Kiki Feliz, a 30-year-old DJ who describes herself as an avid shopper, told me that during the pandemic she has accumulated a number of clothing items. She’d intended to return the unsatisfying buys but put off the chore of going to the post office until it was too late. Now Feliz has rededicated herself to brick-and-mortar stores. “I need to feel it,” she said. “I need to see what it looks like. I need to see if it fits.” These days when she needs basic necessities, she heads to local shops where employees know her by name, which, she said, is “nothing I’ve had before.”
Store outings also have the capacity to foster multiple social interactions, and, in turn, they check more emotional boxes than online browsing does. During the pandemic, Jeannie Kelley, a 66-year-old retiree, has remained a stalwart bargain hunter. Though she’s kept her distance from other thrifters, she’s ventured out to her favorite stores in Austin, Texas, in search of deals—the social aspect of shopping has still been a big draw for her. “I like to meet people, especially when you’re meeting people that have the same thing in common as you,” she told me over the phone. She often compliments people trying on clothes and even found a boyfriend while browsing at a yard sale.
Not everyone walks out of a store with a significant other, but the camaraderie that sometimes develops while shopping in person can contribute to a more satisfying event. For instance, when people not only find an item that fits them perfectly but also receive positive validation from other shoppers, it can engender warm feelings. Jessica Cadmus, a personal shopper in New York City, told me that helping others style an outfit that makes them feel good about themselves is an empowering social experience. “That’s my favorite moment as a stylist,” Cadmus said, “looking at the client falling in love with themselves in the mirror.” These instances are about more than just consumption: With the right people, they can be opportunities for intimate connection.
For those who have been finding their way back into shops, whether big-box stores or small boutiques, the energy of in-person exchanges will always beat the faceless, impersonal act of pressing the checkout button online. Yes, the ease of an internet purchase will remain a utility for many of us. But the social connections and sensory pleasures that often come with in-store shopping are an indelible part of the consumer experience.