My friend and local Economic Development Director Amy Brabham in Prattville Alabama said this on LinkedIn recently. It’s a great insight from a conference she attended:

It’s a conversation taking place among a lot of small, medium, and even large retailers these days (when they’re not talking about Toys ‘R Us).

It’s not enough to just “do a better job” at retail – this is often what I hear, and it’s the “better sailboat” conundrum. In the early days of motor vessels, there was a great deal of innovation – people in the sailboat business made great innovations in hulls and sails so as to keep proving their superiority over those smoky, smelly, inefficient, unreliable engines. It’s why sailboats are such elegant, exciting boats today. Unfortunately, no one uses them for hauling freight. 

Don’t get me wrong. Basics like customer service, retail merchandising, having a great location, and the like are still important, but they become irrelevant if the buying decision gets made somewhere else (like at someone’s phone).

Instead of just “getting better,” the key insight is in understanding Amy’s last sentence: “Amazon is changing our entire way of not just shopping but product consumption.”

Brick/mortar retailers need to understand *how* customer expectations are changing. What can best be done inside the store walls, and what can best be done online? How are brand experiences being curated? If you were a teenager in the ’80s or ’90s, there was perhaps a store in the mall or the shopping center that taught you what “cool” was. Today it’s more likely to be social media. But you still want to go find that cool thing, perhaps try it on, and buy it today, right?

The good news is that there are online solutions to fit almost any budget if you’re willing to roll up your sleeves. From Shopify or BigCommerce for the little shop on the corner to Magento Open Source to Magento Enterprise with Order Management for larger chains (disclosure: I do work for a Magento agency).

Last note (little plug for Vertex, Avalara, and Tax Jar here) – if I were in ED or representing a tax authority these days I’d also be pushing for online sales tax collection.