It’s been a rough few years for retailers. But despite the ongoing challenges, some brands have found ways to thrive.
More than a decade ago, as the retail apocalypse began to rampage the brick-and-mortar landscape, some industries appeared down for the count.
Bookstores and clothing boutiques began disappearing from local malls, while comic book shops and consumer electronics warehouses were left empty by shoppers enthralled with the new plethora of online offerings.
Retailers who could easily adapt to ecommerce had an obvious advantage — but for those depending on “atmosphere” to encourage sales, the challenge was more complex.
The Shift Away From In-Person Shopping
Customers had grown accustomed to the communal, cozy ambiance of the local bookstore and sorting through racks of new arrivals to discover the perfect dress at the corner boutique.
They enjoyed being able to see and touch the latest gadgets at the electronics store or spending a lazy day with friends at the comic book shop, debating superheroes and finally coming across that missing title needed to complete a beloved collection.
But despite their attachments, they still began gravitating in droves to the ease and convenience of ecommerce sites. Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated the exodus.
In-Store and Online Shopping: the Best of Both Worlds
Maybe these consumers had regrets? Perhaps the extended COVID-19 closures made them long for more. Whatever the case, post-pandemic shoppers are now split on how they like to shop.
A 2022 Raydiant study on consumer behavior uncovered that nearly 54% of respondents prefer to shop online — but nearly as many (46%) would rather shop in a store.
Going forward, these shoppers will have more options.
The National Retail Federation reported that while approximately 3,950 US headquartered retailers closed last year, twice as many (more than 8,100) opened for business.
With a divided customer base, many retailers embraced the “click-and-mortar” model (having both a physical and an ecommerce store), which enables businesses to combine their online and offline worlds into one unified journey.
And many retailers — once dependent on that feel-good, in-person experience — have discovered ways to create those same fond feelings through online marketplaces by placing a premium on community and loyalty.
Comics Move to the Ecommerce Business Model
In a survey of comic retailers from Publishers Weekly, respondents overwhelmingly agreed it was a real struggle just to stay afloat in 2020.
But the pandemic is certainly not the first challenge this industry has faced.
The Norman Rockwell Museum placed the golden age of comics between1938 and the 1940s, when titles featuring Superman, Batman and Captain Marvel sold about 1.5 million copies every month. But by the mid-90s, excess merchandise and a major surplus of “collector” issues resulted in a severe sales decline, forcing Marvel Comics into bankruptcy in 1996.
In the midst of that decline in 1993, Rick Shea managed a booth offering comics at an indoor flea market. He later purchased the business and today runs it from a spacious store called Famous Faces & Funnies in West Melbourne, Fla. His 11,000 square-foot space houses more than 200,000 different products, including comics, graphic novels, toys, statues and games.
After nearly 30 years in the comic book industry — and through all the ups and the downs — he readily admits he can’t see himself happy doing anything else.
However, things are definitely looking up. A market research report from Fortune Business Insights indicated that the global comic book market is projected to grow from $9.21 billion in 2021 to $12.81 billion in 2028.
Social Media’s Role in the Ecommerce Equation
As for how Shea stayed afloat when others took a dive, he credits the ability to adapt — fast.
“We’ve always embraced technology as a means of information delivery, from newsletters to mailing lists, to Yahoo groups and Meetup, we’ve always had an online presence where we can,” said Shea.
“Social media is the best way to get information directly to customers, whether that’s a more passive approach like short timeline updates or a more direct approach like targeted ads, you can find us everywhere.”
With an ample inventory — too much to highlight everything on the company’s ecommerce site — he’s used Facebook Live since 2018 to showcase new products, comics and toys and encourage online sales.
“We knew we had an abundance of items and needed to find new customers to show them to,” Shea explained. “We knew that was a format we could easily adapt to fit our staff and space.
“Without much to lose, we figured we’d give it a shot. We found it to be a great success and have continued to generate substantial revenue from the Facebook live sales, which we now do five nights a week.”
During the pandemic, Shea closed the physical store for eight months and focused solely on live sales and curbside pickup to protect immunocompromised staff and customers.
“The sales let us continue to generate revenue in a way that was safe for everyone involved,” he said. “It definitely took a lot of the pressure off of how we were going to make sales during an unprecedented global event and gave us some semblance of normalcy. We also got to connect with people across the country during a time of isolation, so we were able to foster a lot of great connections through just being a presence in their life.”
Mid-pandemic in May 2020, with no new comics released for a seven-week period, Shea’s staff did a 26-hour consecutive live sale weekend where they spent an hour on each letter of the alphabet to sell off back issues. It was wildly successful.
How the Funny Business Is Changing
Shea said in the beginning, the overwhelming majority of his customer base was adult males that were longtime comic readers. But over the last 20 years, especially within the last decade, that’s changed, and what used to be nerd culture is now pop culture.
“Honestly this seemingly sudden explosion of customer bases is what made it necessary to adapt to an ecommerce platform,” he said. “We have no shortage of items to sell, and there’s no shortage of people that want to purchase them. Ecommerce allows us to be the ‘local comic shop’ to the entire country without having to really change much of our operation.”
In addition to social media marketing, he maintained that the key to success in a turbulent industry and remaining relevant in the age of Amazon and convenience is exemplary staff and customer service.
“I’d put my staff up against any staff in the world. Their dedication and passion are unmatched, their product knowledge is insane. They teach me stuff every day that I never thought to know, and I’ve been doing this longer than some of them have been alive.
“They know exactly what customers want and like, knowing what to run by who when it comes in or what to suggest to new or returning customers. That service can’t be replicated by larger companies or faceless corporations.”
The Fashion Forward Online Store
For some big players in the fashion industry, keeping a physical retail presence was not an option.
Reeling from the massive closures of brick-and-mortar retail stores between 2010 and 2017, popular clothing chains like The Limited, BeBe, Wet Seal and American Apparel shuttered storefronts in droves.
But they’re not gone, just reborn as online stores. With one exception — the site for Wet Seal has been “under construction” for a spell.
Overall, though, the forecast is bright. According to the technology platform BigCommerce, in the first quarter of 2022, while ecommerce as a whole saw a 3% increase in inclusive gross merchandise value compared to QI of 2021, the fashion and apparel ecommerce sector grew 19%.
Amid the vast options available in the online fashion world, research from the 2022 Global Ecommerce Report: Fashion and Apparel found that giving buyers a lot of options is a vital component of ecommerce success for this sector.
As for the most impactful factor in their overall ecommerce business, the majority of respondents said incorporating social media and social commerce is at the top of the list.
Other high-ranking strategies included:
- Offering check-out through social media sites
- Providing alternative payment choices — like buy now, pay later — and accepting digital wallets and cryptocurrency
- Creating live online shopping experiences on platforms like TikTok, Instagram and Facebook
- For those that have physical stores, enabling the option for customers to buy online and pick up in-store
A Huge Ecommerce Startup With an Iconic Name
Circuit City, with humble beginnings in 1949, was a highly recognized home appliance and consumer electronics retail mainstay with brick-and-mortar locations in neighborhoods across the country. Then it saw massive layoffs, bankruptcy, sell-offs, several new owners and vast closures, with the final store boarded up in 2009.
They weren’t alone.
Other major consumer electronics giants were in trouble too, with Sharper Image filing for bankruptcy in 2008 and H.H. Gregg announcing bankruptcy in 2017.
With the retail apocalypse still lurching along, longtime retailer Ronny Shmoel took over ownership of Circuit City in 2016 and rebranded the company as Circuit City Corporation, Inc., acquiring trademarks and ecommerce rights with the goal of bringing back the electronic retailer’s name through online shopping.
The timing appeared to be good. Reports show that the global consumer electronics ecommerce market is expected to grow from $539.46 billion in 2022 to $825.39 billion in 2026.
As Circuit City’s Chief Marketing Officer, Victor Elmann said people always loved the brand because they grew up with it. The challenge was how to go from “out of business” to “relaunch” for a company that was basically “a huge startup with an iconic name.”
After conducting a large number of interviews with previous vendors, suppliers and executives, it became apparent that one glaring past failure of Circuit City had been a prior management decision that allowed hundreds of long-term, experienced, passionate staff to leave in favor of lower-paid, less experienced replacements.
Elmann’s team focused on creating a dynamic, social-focused ecommerce website with a discovery area dedicated to experiences rather than prices — and staffed by passionate, knowledgeable experts.
“Taking social a step further, we’ve built out a fully interactive discovery area for consumers to browse, curate and create,” Elmann said. “We aim to introduce, rather than push ideas that can help make consumers’ lives easier.
“Most consumer electronics models today focus on providing products you are looking for. That’s great if you know what you want, but what if you don’t, that’s where our solutions offering comes into play.”
Goodbye Search, Hello Online Discovery
In creating the online business, Circuit City aspired to bring back the fun browsing and discovery experience of a physical store by incorporating augmented reality (AR) technology, making it possible for customers to see products and experience them in real-time from home.
For example, the brand’s “shop-by-room” concept allows users to choose from various room layouts and hand-pick the products they would like to see. For each room chosen, consumers have multiple product categories and dozens of products within those categories to choose from.
Once a product is selected, it’s dynamically placed into the room layout for the consumer to view and evaluate. Shoppers can change room layouts and products within each room as many times as they wish.
“You will no longer need to know exactly what you want to find it online,” Elmann said. “In fact, knowing exactly what you want takes some of the joy out of shopping in the first place.”
The Bookstore’s Ever-Changing Landscape
Remember when the local bookstore was the place to relax on a plush couch, sip a coffee and discuss literature (or Stephen King’s latest) with friends?
As big-box ecommerce retailers arrived on the scene in the mid-90s, these cozy spots became harder to find.
Dr. Ryan Raffaelli, associate professor at Harvard Business School, said independent booksellers have faced numerous competitive threats and technological shocks for the past 40 years.
In his report Reinventing Retail: The Novel Resurgence of Independent Bookstores, he noted several of these industry threats:
- In the 1980s, independent bookstores faced the rise of chains like Waldenbooks and B. Dalton.
- In the 1990s, the growth of big box retailers like Barnes & Noble and Borders corresponded with the dramatic decline of ABA membership.
- In 1995, a month after its initial launch, Amazon.com reported it had sold books in all 50 states and 45 countries.
- In 2007, the first eReaders and eBooks arrived, threatening the dominance of printed books.
Raffaelli published the report just prior to the pandemic and, in a recent interview, offered some follow-up.
“When the pandemic initially hit, most local retail shut down,” he said. “Booksellers immediately began to experiment with creative ways to deliver books to eager consumers locked inside their homes in need of fresh reading material.”
Raffaelli believes the indie booksellers that proved to be resilient in the face of these challenges did so by tapping into a larger social movement and a desire to cultivate community through adopting or expanding online services.
The American Booksellers Association, a national not-for-profit trade organization, provided its assistance by creating the #BoxedOut social media campaign to support independent bookstores against the big-box retail (namely Amazon) influence on the industry.
“For decades indie booksellers have proven their resilience, and part of their success comes from an unrelenting commitment to their customer — the reader,” Raffaelli said. “Compared to many other sectors where consumers quickly switched to Amazon, indie booksellers benefitted from having spent years educating their core customers about the impact the online giant can have on local business. In many communities, a dedicated consumer base rushed in to help.”
For Bel Canto Books, an independently owned bookstore in Long Beach, Calif., the last few years have been a time of growth and expansion.
Founder and owner Jhoanna Belfer said that what began as a pop-up shop before moving to The Hangout, an ecommerce and in-store co-op of small retailers and artists, has now developed into a loyal online community.
“Having an online presence, both through our website and social media, has helped us tremendously through these uncertain times,” Belfer said. “We’ve connected with so many new readers and online book club members from places as varied as Hawaii, Nashville, Michigan and overseas — all for a tiny but mighty indie bookstore based in Long Beach, California.”
Is Ecommerce the Solution to the Retail Apocalypse?
More than a decade after the term “retail apocalypse” was coined, it’s still killing both independent shops and big-chain brands. But it seems that some enterprises simply refuse to die, despite the challenges.
The Dalai Lama once tweeted, “Without technology humanity has no future, but we have to be careful that we don’t become so mechanized that we lose our human feelings.”
Combining the human side of customer connection, commonality, community and investment in a passionate, knowledgeable staff — with the high-tech online shopping components that allow you to make those vital connections — might just be the antidote.