Web retailers find a new venue: stores

In-person sales prove their value

William Sigler, manager at the Guideshop, helped Sequoia McDowell of Easthampton choose clothing.
William Sigler, manager at the Guideshop, helped Sequoia McDowell of Easthampton choose clothing.Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post/Washington Post

WASHINGTON — When the online jewelry shop BaubleBar opened a brick-and-mortar outpost in Manhattan, the retailer quickly realized just how different its in-store shoppers are from its Web customers.

Shoppers suddenly paid more attention to unflashy pieces often overlooked online. More women bought multiple necklaces that could be worn together. And perhaps most importantly, cofounder Daniella Yacobovsky said, shoppers typically purchased three times as much merchandise as an online BaubleBar customer.

‘‘Having the opportunity to touch and feel our product is a big value,’’ Yacobovsky said.

After three years as an e-commerce darling, BaubleBar and many other Web retailing pioneers have discovered the old-school benefits of having a brick-and-mortar store.


Rent The Runway, which rents designer clothes by the day, plans to open a stand-alone store in Manhattan’s Flatiron district in September.

Products from Etsy, a dominant online marketplace for handicrafts and vintage goods, will soon be available in independent boutiques and some major chain stores, such as Nordstrom.

Birchbox, the subscription service that delivers beauty products to customers’ doorsteps, opened a brick-and-mortar flagship in New York in July.

Upstart online retailers have emerged as a major challenge to traditional outposts such as Walmart and Best Buy. But many of these sites are looking for new ways to distinguish themselves amid the flood of competitors while expanding their businesses at a time when e-commerce still comprises just a small portion of retail sales.

Now, many are taking a page from their traditional competitors by offering an in-person shopping experience that can’t be mimicked on a tablet or smartphone. When shoppers have a chance to try on clothes and test merchandise, they don’t have to agonize over a picture online and wonder whether it’s worth the investment. This heightened focus on in-store experience could be a sign that the retail industry’s definition of successful store is changing, analysts said.


‘‘Retailers have to become much more agnostic,’’ said Anne Zybowski, vice president at the consulting firm Kantar Retail. ‘‘My point of view is that convenience is situational. What’s convenient this week may not be convenient next week.’’

Harry’s, an online seller of high-end men’s shaving products that recently raised $123 million in venture capital funding, set up its first brick-and-mortar outpost last year in New York’s SoHo neighborhood. Instead of launching a traditional store that sells its razors and shaving creams, the company built a barber shop that co-chief executive Andy Katz-Mayfield said is designed to feel like a neighborhood store.

‘‘It’s less about creating another channel to sell product,’’ Katz-Mayfield said. ‘‘For us it’s pretty different. It’s about providing a really great experience.’’

Using a physical space to create a memorable, one-of-a-kind experience is core to what many online retailers say motivated their move into physical stores.

Jennifer Hyman, chief executive of Rent the Runway, said shoppers at its brick-and-mortar shops are able to get special touches not available online — including temporary hemming or strap adjustments and stylists’ advice that might steer them to new brands.

After launching an online men’s apparel retailer in 2007, Bonobos has found its physical stores essential. Known as Guideshops, the tiny showrooms allow customers to try on blazers, suits, and dress shirts.

That is key for Ross Martin, 27, who stopped by a Guideshop in Washington, D.C., this week to make an emergency purchase of a suit for a wedding this weekend. His other suit was ruined at a wedding the weekend before, and he needed a new one in a hurry.


‘‘I went online to look at their offerings, but I’ve always had trouble finding brands that fit,’’ Martin said. By coming into a store, Martin said, he felt more confident that he would get something quickly that met his needs.

Guideshops have a small real estate footprint because they carry only one of each item in each size. Customers try on the clothes then place an order online, with the help of a sales associate. Within two days, the purchase arrives at the doorstep.

Simeon Siegel, a retail analyst for Nomura Securities International, said that Web-first retailers may be on the leading edge of redefining how the retail industry thinks about success at brick-and-mortar outposts.

‘‘Sales per square foot used to be the most important metric, and you’re now hearing managers shy away from that,’’ Siegel said.

In other words, the success of a store may ne judged less on how many dollars it pulls in and more on its ability to function as a marketing tool for the brand.