January 31, 2008, 12:00 AM

Christmas store shopping a (chilly) breeze

Online shopping grew 19% this Christmas while store sales were virtually flat. Even with fewer crowds, shopping at stores just wasn`t much fun.

Unlike Christmases past, when I shopped almost exclusively online, I bought all my Yuletide gifts at stores in 2007. My apologies to e-retailers; I abandoned you purely for research. I wanted to reconnect with the seasonal store shopping experience to understand first hand why stores are getting so hammered by online merchants at Christmastime.

The stores I visited (Kohl’s, Target, Nordstrom, Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Pier 1, Sports Authority, Jared, Best Buy and Apple) were nicely decorated and neatly stocked-and hauntingly empty. While I shopped mostly at mid-morning on Saturdays, there were no Christmas shopping crowds. Parking was easy and checkout was a breeze. The only exception was at the Apple outlet, which was packed with people queuing up-as I was-for iPhones that were dispensed like hotdogs at a ball game. I got suitable gifts and prices were good. In fact, the merchandise was often marked down.

But here’s why the experience was less than satisfying and why, I think, online shopping grew 19% this Christmas while store sales were virtually flat. Even with fewer crowds, shopping at stores just wasn’t much fun. I invested about 15 hours, driving 100 miles to visit a dozen stores in five locations, some a couple of times each. With few exceptions (Jared), I found sales personnel were efficient but not engaging. Often salespeople were just hard to find. Had a sales associate approached me during the 15 minutes I inspected a beautiful foosball table at Sports Authority, I might have been nudged into spending more money on a memorable gift for my grandsons instead of playing it safe fulfilling the list my daughter prepared. And I certainly would have purchased that $150 leather coat at Nordstrom if the store had the size I was looking for or if Nordstrom would guarantee shipment of the right size from the warehouse in less than 10 business days. And whenever I failed to find what I was looking for and suggested to store associates that I might find it online instead, their attitude was plain: suit yourself. No one led me to a computer terminal to help me find that exact product I wanted on the store’s web site. Store associates, I judged, see the Internet as a threat.

I saw no Santas. No store offered festive treats or pleasant surprises. No salesperson went out of the way to connect with me or did anything for that matter to get or keep me in a festive Christmas shopping mood. Christmas shopping at stores, I concluded, has become impersonal at best, irritating at worst.

I could have spent one-third the time finding everything I wanted online. There would have been no lugging of bags to the parking lot through the slush and snow. Nor would there have been any frustration dealing with inexperienced sales staff who couldn’t answer questions. No anger after being told-as I was at Pier One-that I had to drive my car from the back of the store to the front to load my purchase into my SUV, even though there was a suitable loading dock in the back

Stores were flat at Christmas partly because overall retail sales were anything but robust. Still, Christmas shopping is a chore which can be done with less hassle and time on the web. It’s where I will return next Christmas and why an ever increasing number of Americans will prefer Christmas shopping online-unless and until the stores revamp the shopping experience to offer something-joy, excitement, connection-that web merchants can’t.

jack@verticalwebmedia.com

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