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Why Virtual Shopping Won't Kill Actual Stores

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One day, retail historians may look back and chuckle as they read the early-2000s' predictions of the death of brick and mortar stores at the hands of online shopping. It appears that the truth (and the future) may well lie somewhere in between the two extremes. A perfect world where people shop in stores, devices at the ready.

While people are living busier lives and are drawn to the kind of simplification that online shopping offers, e-retail still suffers from privacy and security concerns, and a lack of hands-on experience. As much as Canadians like to browse online, there's still something to be said for standing in a store, holding a cordless drill in your hands or watching your child interact with a toy.

It was probably just a matter of time before the industry settled into the sweet spot between the clicks and the bricks. That's exactly what appears to be happening this year, with a perfect storm of smartphone adoption, mobile technology improvements, and savvy consumerism.

As if we needed an illustration, witness Black Friday. People were using Twitter -- tweeting deals, lineups, stock-outs, and even ugly incidents at specific retail locations -- as a mass shopping tool.

Shoppers have always sought out mass input. That's the reason Consumer Reports and other public review documents have been so popular for so long. Bringing that kind of tool into the store -- reading a product rating while you belly up to the shelf -- is the logical evolution.

While some mobile sites (and sites without mobile capability) aren't shopper-ready yet, Twitter is smartphone-friendly and an easy way to access real-time ratings and reviews. This kind of friendly interaction could cause a renaissance for the bricks and mortar business.

A client of mine recently launched a new mobile site, specifically designed to optimize your in-store shopping experiences based on the mobile device in your hand. It recognizes iPhone, Android, BlackBerry and tablet technology, and delivers you a mobile site experience with content that is easily understood -- both by you and your device.

I've been on BlackBerry. I've been on iPhone. And, I've been on sites that frustrate me to no end with both. But, whatever your device, the new mobile sites from being launched by Canadian technology retailers deliver clean, clear content.

They also let you skip the app conundrum, because apps are not easily accessible across all platforms, they have to be updated often, they bog down your device, and -- quite simply -- they take more of your effort. E-shopping is about ease after all.

These mobile sites are the first of their kind in North American retailing, but I expect mobile sites that enhance the in-store shopping experience will be something of the norm in 2012.

The online world will continue to influence real-world shops (QR codes are kind of old news, but I've seen them used recently and with reasonable success. And, I recently downloaded a barcode app that will compare and shop my region for me while I stand in a store holding the product in question). But, let's not forget the "last three feet" -- an old retail saying that suggests the most important time to influence buying decisions is when the customer is at the shelf with a cast of product options. In this context, the e-opportunities are endless.

One recent example is the new Google Maps that now allows you to find a washroom while you're in certain big box stores. I imagine we'll soon be able to access GPS layouts of stores or shopping malls to know exactly where we are and where we need to go to find the things we want to find, without having to ask. This will be especially handy for us men with an aversion for asking for directions.

I have been a student of the retail business for some time and certainly have an affinity for walking the aisles (yes, I usually have my smartphone in hand). So I'm excited to see the kind of technology that was developed to allow people to avoid bricks and mortar is now making the in-store experience the best of both worlds.

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