Kevin Henry trekked to Best Buy in Alexandria on Thursday night to buy some half-priced Beats by Dre headphones — and to re-create the thrill that he got when his mom first took him to a Black Friday sale as a middle-schooler. Ernestine Veny went to Kmart in Oxon Hill, Md., before dawn because she wanted to touch a set of 800-thread-count sheets before she scooped them up for $19.99. Sharon Brandon planned to get back into her pajamas after she left Kmart with a slew of $4.99 board games, including Trouble and Don’t Break the Ice. Her turkey was in the oven, but she couldn’t resist the siren call of a store during its Black Friday bonanza.
“The crowd, the atmosphere, I just want to get in and be hands-on. Online shopping is boring,” Brandon said.
Shoppers like Brandon have helped usher in a different attitude in the retail industry as it kicks off the biggest shopping season of the year.
Once terrified that customers would use their stores as showrooms but ultimately buy online from a competitor, traditional retailers are feeling more confident that their brick-and-mortar stores could be an advantage, not an albatross, in the digital era.
So even as they plow billions into improving their online shopping capabilities, they are sprinting to make changes big and small to their stores to appeal to those who want to touch and feel and experience shopping.
Indeed, some big retailers are so bullish on the importance of stores these days that Macy’s chief executive Terry Lundgren has boasted that “stores are the new black” and Wal-Mart chief executive Doug McMillon has said he likes his company’s chances against an online-first player such as Amazon.com.
Experts say that the retailers’ mind-set probably reflects the recent shape of consumer shopping patterns. While e-commerce poster child Amazon continues to see explosive revenue growth and has created tens of millions of devotees with its Prime membership, online shopping overall still accounts for only 7.2 percent of retail sales, not even double what it was five years ago. And many retailers and research analyses are finding that although online shopping is growing, it is often a complement — not a replacement — for in-store buying.
“It’s fairly recently that retailers woke up and smelled the coffee and said, ‘If we do it right, our stores can become our greatest asset. They don’t have to be cumbersome and drag us down,’ ” said Carol Spieckerman, a strategist at Spieckerman Retail.
Retailers are trying a variety of tactics to improve their in-store experience this holiday season. Wal-Mart has been working all year to get stores better stocked and more organized in time for the November and December shopping rush. The world’s largest retailer is also trying to make stores more welcoming this season by bringing back holiday tunes to its airwaves and adding in-store Santas, festive touches it hasn’t offered consistently over the years.
Kohl’s, meanwhile, has been pushing to add more of what it calls “entry statements” — eye-catching, frequently changing displays that it hopes will create an inviting sense of newness when customers come in.
“There’s a reason that on Black Friday 500 to 700 people will line up outside your door,” said Jon Grosso, executive vice president for stores at Kohl’s. “They want an experience.”
On Thursday at Kmart’s Black Friday doorbusters sale, De’Asia Brown was in disbelief when her mom went back for a second griddle.
The pair had already paid for a cart filled with gifts: deep fryers, a Spider-Man pillow and towel, a tablet, and, of course, a griddle.
But now Romica Douglas’s quest for that one last gift was slowing them down when Brown thought they needed to hurry back to the house to clean the greens and fry the chicken before relatives descended for Thanksgiving dinner.
Brown, 15, said she and Douglas, her mom, are annual partners for scouring the blitz of sales that retailers dangle to jump-start the holiday shopping season. And even though they could easily shop online, the D.C. residents prefer to score deals in stores because wandering the aisles and seeing the goods always sparks more gift ideas, Brown said.
“We came here only to get a bean-bag chair,” Brown said. “We’re leaving with $225 worth of stuff.”
Pam Copeland, meanwhile, was having a more low-key Thanksgiving shopping excursion than she’s used to. In the past, her family and friends have organized a team with as many as 30 people to divide and conquer all the deals, with some people hitting an electronics sale and buying for the whole group, others hitting a toy sale, and so on.
This year, the Alexandria resident was just wandering Best Buy with her 17-year-old son, who was scoping out TVs. Copeland said that she was happy just to be out wandering the aisles and getting in the holiday spirit, but said she was nostalgic for previous Black Friday events when she was shopping with friends in the wee hours of the morning.
“We miss the middle of the night, the rush,” Copeland said, noting how orderly it was when shoppers entered Best Buy in a single-file line.
Brian Cornell, the chief executive of Target, talked last month in an interview about how his company’s attempt to reinvigorate stores is shaped by data showing that less than 10 percent of shopping happens online.
“The estimates that I look at, if we fast-forward five or even 10 years, it might get to an 80-20 mix,” Cornell said. “But it still means eight out every 10 dollars is going to be spent in-store. So we can’t take our eyes off the importance of that in-store experience.”
By the time shoppers get to a brick-and-mortar store, though, they’ve often done online research on their prospective purchases. About 69 percent of holiday shoppers plan to do research online before buying in stores, according to a Deloitte study.
The digital channel is a customer’s shopping companion. “That’s where she pre-shops,” said Steve Stickel, global head of stores at Old Navy. “That’s where she makes a lot of her decisions about what she sees when she gets to the store.”
Once shoppers enter Old Navy, the apparel chain wants to win them over with efforts such as a pilot of a mobile checkout, which they hope will save customers time by avoiding long lines.
The lure of stores can also be just for fellowship.
Sergio Posada, 21, showed up outside J.C. Penney at Westfield Wheaton mall in time for the 3 p.m. opening, but he didn’t go in.
Instead, while the crowd bustled past, he sat on a ledge outside the door, looking to run into old friends who were in town for the holiday and who liked hanging out at the mall. By 3:45, he said he had met five people he knew, some of whom he saw rarely because they’d moved away.
“Some of them it’s like, ‘I haven’t seen you in five years!’ It’s like a reunion,” Posada said.
Several stores that made their name in online retailing, including Amazon, Blue Nile and Fabletics, are going the brick-and-mortar route. (Jeffrey P. Bezos, chief executive of Amazon, owns The Washington Post.) Even eBay, a pioneer of online shopping, is trying a physical retail tie-in this season by setting up in-person selling stations in Westfield-owned malls.
Birchbox, the e-commerce beauty store known for its monthly subscription boxes, opened a shop in Georgetown within Rent the Runway, an expansion it settled on after early signs of success at its first brick-and-mortar location in New York.
“We just saw that it had a huge impact on our relationship with the consumer and, we think, a meaningful impact on the long-term potential of Birchbox,” said Katia Beauchamp, Birchbox’s chief executive.
Retailers’ efforts to make their stores enticing come amid mixed signals about consumers’ willingness to spend money this season. The National Retail Federation has projected that the industry will see 3.7 percent sales growth, a healthy increase, but slightly weaker than last year’s 4.1 percent sales growth.
Companies such as Home Depot and TJX, which owns T.J.Maxx, reported strong quarterly earnings results last week. And yet much of the sector looked gloomier rolling into the holiday season: Macy’s, Nordstrom, Urban Outfitters and Dick’s Sporting Goods reported disappointing third-quarter sales, and Best Buy offered a cautious forecast for the holiday quarter.
Efforts to freshen up stores could prove crucial as retailers aim to have themselves a merry Christmas.
“Consumers are increasingly looking for experiences, not just stuff,” said Shilpa Rosenberry, a retail strategist at consultancy Daymon Worldwide. “And part of that is embracing stores. Their mind-set has changed.”
Jonathan O’Connell contributed to this report.