Michael Smollan
Michael Smollan

The identity crisis for stores and malls

by Michael Smollan. The Covid pandemic just accelerated the crisis in physical retail.

by Michael Smollan. People are constantly telling me that Covid has been a disruptor in so many ways to physical retail. The truth is this space was having an identity crisis long before the proverbial hit the fan, and the pandemic just accelerated the process. Physical retail has been in denial that there is a drastic need for change for close on a decade now, and probably more, depending on where in the world you are. The answer to declining revenue in stores, particularly consumer electronics and apparel, was to decrease overheads to try and maximise profitability and drive ‘efficiency’; but in effect all this has done is make the consumer experience worse. Somehow, physical retail forgot that the most important variable in the ecosystem is the consumers experience in their stores and not their overheads.

We have seen a number of department stores close in recent years and huge write downs of clothing brands across the world; and these, together with consumer electronics, were the first and biggest to get hit. This demise is in part due to the role digital retail has played, along with the fact that stores quite simply do not offer the consumer an enjoyable shopping experience. Forget the fact that all retailers rely on the obvious, such as the cost for consumers to get to the store, including their petrol and their time. They forget that parking must be found; a specific store located within a mall labyrinth designed to make one end up at the food court every time; and then just as they are about to leave, throw in the possibility of a lost parking ticket, which is just a backward process in of itself.

Brand experience

The in store experience is often overlooked, as once shoppers have found the store, there’s generally no one there to help them on the floor, and besides, if they manage to find a desired size, the chances are it could be out of stock because the store is trying to minimise stockholding. Then to add to that, throw in a global pandemic that forces one to fear human exposure, and basically glues one to a computer all day. The only viable option is to then shop at your desk or from the couch, browse every store on the planet, and in developed countries, have your goods delivered a few hours later. Granted, the digital version may never make financial sense given the cost of logistics and reverse logistics, etc, but if you have the choice as a consumer, I am certain no one would continue to pick physical retail.

It is key for retailers and brands to start tailoring their propositions accordingly. They need to define what their overall brand experience is; and what specific retail experiences are on hand to deliver for these different formats, balancing consistency, convenience, sales support, and product interaction.

What physical retail needs to rediscover is that there is a big difference between shopping and buying. Shopping is a joyful experience. It is about slowly walking around with a takeaway coffee enjoying a High Street, a well curated mall, or theatrical department store. It is an experience that one cannot get sitting on a couch because it requires a physical connection, like visiting Harrods on a Saturday or the food floors of Selfridges. It is the slow two hours walk at John Lewis when you are about to have a baby, with the experts on-hand. Or the feeling of being smarter and cooler in an Apple store, or the curation and presentation at Wholefoods that makes every morsel delectable.

Take Argos UK, for example, that allows you to select your products on a tablet from a ‘live’ inventory (with no products on the actual floor), before one proceeds to the counter to collect. It is super-efficient, but not at the expense of the consumer experience. It is about a true value innovation where everyone wins.

Experiential retail

Great retail experiences are by no means just for high end stores. Small stores can reap the benefits of experiential retail by taking advantage of their location and by offering in-store events or services to make the consumer connection at minimal expense. Showfields is a US shoe store that includes art installations and what they term ‘intentional spaces’ that offer pop up’s for members of the community. These are stores consumers want to be shoppers in.

Buying is what you do off a list when grocery shopping. It is a pure function and it will be replaced by digital retail faster than anyone imagined. However, be under no illusion, physical retail is not dead nor dying. It is here forever, but in order to survive, the war between physical and digital will be won with tiny skirmishes. Physical will win when consumers want to shop. It will win when it solves all that friction that is caused by bad interactions and poor service. Until then it is a free for all for the digital world because its physical counterpart is barely putting up a fight.


Michael Smollan is Chief Growth & Innovation Officer of Smollan. Smollan is a leading retail solutions company that delivers growth for retailers and brand owners across five continents by covering every aspect of how their brand is managed at the point of purchase, from field sales to in store and digitally. Smollan partners with brand owners and retailers to deliver accelerated growth by increasing reach, driving availability and visibility, increasing efficiency and delivering superior shopper experiences; operating across emerging and developed markets, in modern and general trade, and across physical and digital channels.


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