The disruptive impact of digital technology on retail has gone full circle. In its infancy, the technology knocked down barriers to distance, allowing entrepreneurs with access to bandwidth to expand their niche markets into a global presence. Amazon was the major disrupter of the book industry, killing off all but a handful of national chains while in the process ringing the death knell for thousands of independent bookstores.
As Amazon has since branched out into other industries — food and clothing among them — an interesting thing happened. The company has begun to open stores. This blurring of the lines between the bricks and mortar stores and online sellers has been underway for a while but has now matured into a fullblown trend.
Speaking at a global economic conference in January, the CEO of Alibaba, the Chinese online retailer that is larger than Amazon, explains that smart phones have enabled consumers to be two places at once.
“Today, we always say we cannot separate online and offline,” Daniel Zhang said at Davos, as quoted in a story promoted by his company. “Consumers love to go to the mall for the experience, but today when they go there, at the same time they are online. So, it’s about making the experience better by finding innovative ways to combine physical shopping with mobile technologies.”
Two Lafayette boutique retailers are among those firms that have followed their customers into the ether and have seen tangible rewards from doing so.
Pieces of Eight owner Nicole Perea says her store’s bridal registry work first pulled the company online about a decade ago. The store, which opened in the Oil Center in 1971, specializes in gifts and stationery.
“We found a number of our customers were planning their weddings using TheKnot.com, and they wanted their guests to be able to access their bridal registry online,” Perea explains. “So, we had to move online.”
TheKnot.com pioneered online wedding planning 20 years ago, according to its investor information, so while Perea and her team were pioneering the merger of online and bricks and mortar retail here, they were being pulled in the direction of the digital-only realm of retail.
The first Pieces of Eight website was built on the company’s point of sale software. It didn’t work for customers or for the store, according to Perea. Coordinating inventory within the store and with online sales became an issue that ultimately led Perea to convert to a new point of sales platform, RMS from Microsoft, enabling her to integrate inventory into a single system.
Perea says that online sales are “not that large” a percentage of her store’s total sales, but the implementation of a digital strategy has helped both customers and the store make better use of time and resources.
“Because we have our entire inventory online, we find that customers browse online, make some choices and then come into the store to make final decisions,” Perea says, noting that the online presence has also reduced the amount of time employees spend on the phone with customers responding to product questions.
Perea says Louisiana products are her best-selling online items.
Regarding her store’s online presence, Perea says it’s a necessity.
“You have to do it,” she says. “It makes you much more efficient, and it helps you find your niche at a time when there is so much competition.”
Edward “Brother” Abdalla can relate. “The competition in the retail space is intense, and it’s creating challenges and opportunities,” Abdalla says. The owner of Brother’s on The Blvd. has experienced quite a bit of change in the 40 years his store has been in business, but it seems the pace of that change has intensified in the past five years.
“You read about the problems that some of the large department store chains are experiencing and how that is affecting everything from suppliers to real estate,” Abdalla says. “We have been seeing it here and hearing it when we go to market in Dallas. We think it’s a big opportunity for boutique operations like ours.”
Three years ago, Brothers launched an online presence and has been figuring it out as it goes along.
Brother, his wife Catherine and their daughter Alicia Abdalla Mouton have steered the company’s online operation into a five-person operation that combines local and international order fulfillment.
“We shoot our own product images so that we can bring a consistency and continuity to the website,” Mouton says. “We use inventory from the store floor to populate our website.”
Brother’s uses the Shopify platform for its online presence. Mouton says that Brother’s online presence has grown to the point where integrating online and instore inventory is becoming a challenge.
Brother Abdalla says the online presence has already proven its worth. “We haven’t been at it that long, but I can tell you that our online sales have already made the difference between having a profitable year and not having one.”
He adds that the lingering impact of the August 2016 floods and the surge in new competitors into the market with the opening of the Ambassador Town Center have forced his team to focus on innovative ways to improve the shopping experience.
“We have people who come into the store to look at items then go home to shop online,” Abdalla says. “But, people want instant gratification, so we can deliver after they make an online purchase. Some people don’t want to spend a lot of time in the store, so the online presence is ideal for them.”
“What we keep hearing at market and in the industry publications is that there’s about a three-year window for retailers like us to hit on the right mix of an online and in-store strategy,” Abdalla says.
Unlike large retailers like Walmart, local retailers can’t just throw money at the challenge. It’s an incremental process of listening to customer needs mixed with a bit of trial and error.
“It’s a process of trying things on a limited basis, but we think that by focusing on customer convenience we are finding our way,” Mouton says.
A freelance journalist living in Lafayette, Mike Stagg hosts “Where The Alligators Roam,” a talk show that streams live on Sundays at 5 p.m. on Acadiana Open Channel’s Cypress Street Radio with podcasts available on Mondays. He drives for Uber and is a documentarian and researcher currently working on a book about the oil and gas industry’s relationship with Louisiana government.