The Future of Shopping Is the Past

Online retailers that for years have championed e-commerce over brick-and-mortar are now opting to build their stores as well. But what does that mean for actual last-minute holiday shopping?

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So there's this crazy new trend in shopping in which retailers set up physical stores where people come to buy things. Oh, wait. That's called shopping. It's just that some Internet-native stores now seem to have realized that popping up with one of those old-school, in-person things may actually have its benefits, reports The New York Times's Stephanie Clifford. Online retailers like Bonobo and Piperlime, which for years have championed e-commerce over brick-and-mortar, are now opting to build their own real-world locations as well. It's not too surprising that after all these years Web-based vendors would head out in the real world. (People still shop at malls for a lot of reasons.) And it's especially unsurprising given certain aspects of buying things online that make the old way a lot more appealing.

These new stores haven't adopted the put-as-much-stuff-in-a-room-and-try-to-sell-it model of traditional retailers. The sites act more like showrooms, with fewer items, than big box stores. But 90 percent of sales still come from physical stores, according to Forrester, and that's for one reason: people like feeling a product and trying it on. As Amazon expands it has started charging sales tax for more customers, something we can expect to see more of in the future. It also turns out that running a website doesn't cut as much overhead as everyone thinks. "The cost of marketing a Web site and the cost of free shipping both ways was approximating a store expense," Bonobos CEO Andy Dunn tells Clifford.

And of course there's the other, perhaps more important reality of the holiday shopping season: Last minute shoppers can't get presents via online sites, as The Wall Street Journal's Dana Mattioli explains. For example, GSI, a shipping unit for eBay, has extended its Christmas shipping deadline this year by one hour to 11 p.m. EST on December 22. While that might not sound like a lot of extra time, that hour will account for 10 percent of all eBay sales that day, and it makes for a last-minute window eight hours longer than what Amazon offers. "Having a few hours over a competitor could be a seven-figure event," a marketer for one online retailer told Mattioli. While Internet stores can force some extra hours, cutting shipping times as much as possible, physical stores have the biggest advantage, offering last-minute shoppers actual shopping at the actual last minute. If one hour equals seven figures, imagine what an entire day can do.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.