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An Inconvenient Truth

Delivery services and online shopping were supposed to make our lives easier—but have they lived up to the hype?

Hello, my name is Audrey, and I am a recovering delivery service addict.

If it comes in a cardboard box and gets delivered to your door, you name it, I’ve tried it: FreshDirect for groceries. Birchbox for makeup. NatureBox for snacks. Blue Apron for do-it-yourself gourmet meals. Le Tote for clothing and jewelry. Living in the crowded confines of New York City, where shopping often resembles an urban version of The Hunger Games, delivery services offered the ultimate convenience—great new products, delivered directly to my door. Or so it seemed.

Fast-forward to the height of my addiction, however, and the convenience quickly began to appear, well, not so convenient. I spent hours sending e-mails in efforts to locate waylaid packages. I developed a complicated relationship with my local USPS worker. I began to spend more time trekking to the post office than I spent with my husband.

I exaggerate (slightly), but I must not be the only one who has discovered that the stress-free promise of online shopping hasn’t quite lived up to its billing: Even Amazon is opening a brick-and-mortar location in Manhattan, in efforts to offer reliable, same-day shipping to the city’s need-it-now shoppers. Many big box shops and department stores, and even grocery chains like Whole Foods, are encouraging customers to opt for in-store pick-up, rather than delivery. And in the ultimate sign that online retailers have discovered the benefits of brick-and-mortar, more and more tech start-ups like Warby Parker are opening physical locations.

In fact, the famed one-for-one eyeglasses e-tailer has opened 13 stores and showrooms since 2013. Online men’s clothing store Bonobos announced it will open 30 stores in the next two years. Rent the Runway, the site that allows women to rent designer gowns for a fraction of the retail cost, opened four stores in the last year. And Birchbox, my friend of yore, opened a flagship in New York City’s SoHo neighborhood last July.

Retail analysts chalk up the growth in brick-and-mortar locations to several factors: For e-commerce companies, physical stores offer a convenient spot to store inventory, as well as another location for shipping. E-commerce companies are also more nimble than their big box counterparts and can sign flexible, short-term leases. Yet even as these nifty start-ups praise the ease of shipping from their new storefronts, I think they may be (purposefully) obscuring the biggest benefit of a brick-and-mortar location: Instant gratification.

There’s no doubt that getting a package in the mail is pretty exciting, but in my book, nothing beats the thrill of finding the perfect pair of shoes, right when you need them. Why worry about sizing or comfort when you can try the pair on in person? That’s exactly why so many kids’ retailers have jumped into the footwear category in recent years, according to market research firm NPD Group: Parents rely on the personalized sit-and-fit service local retailers provide. (For more on how to capitalize on the category, check out our Shop Class feature on p. 12.)

While it’s undeniable that we Americans love a good bargain—and bargains certainly abound in the low-price world of online shopping—we also love to get what we want, when we want it. And as of yet, there’s still no way to get a feel for fabric quality or color accuracy when shopping online. As the e-commerce crowd has discovered, there will always be a need for brick-and-mortar stores.

What the savviest retailers have realized is that no single retail format will satisfy every shopper—which is precisely why “omni-channel” has become the phrase du jour for market analysts. The future belongs to retailers who have integrated and perfected the shopping experience across all mediums, from online to mobile to good, old-fashioned in-person interludes.

Thankfully, we work in an industry where real-life browsing is a big part of the fun. What better way to celebrate a new grandson or granddaughter than by indulging in the soft, colorful, stylish merchandise at a nearby children’s boutique? Or to pick the perfect stroller by putting several models to the test in person?

After all, if there’s any group of folks who could use a bit of convenience in their lives, it’s definitely parents. Let’s help make it happen.

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