'Tis The Season For Brick And Mortar To Shine

The holiday season is underway and that means the battle of the retailers is in full swing. On one side stands e-commerce, convenient yet lacking the emotional draw of the department store. On the other is that venerable institution the department store, with its seasonal crowds and energy.

Despite being the center of the Western holiday experience for decades, department stores have felt the pinch from online retail outlets and feel threatened not just financially but culturally. 

Although traditional brick-and-mortar stores might seem no match for the high-speed modern world of digital shopping, they nonetheless still have a few advantages they can capitalize on in the battle for consumer attention and dollars.

For starters, department stores have a natural strength of physical presence that can be leveraged to reward shoppers’ natural excitement. 

Going to flagship department stores is the perfect blend between timeless tradition and sensory excitement. Taking children on the annual pilgrimage downtown the way our parents and grandparents did with us rekindles our positive feelings for humanity. Online shopping cannot begin to replicate the exhilaration of collective celebrations. Here’s some tips stores should consider this holiday season:



Yes, Virginia, Christmas magic is a real thing: The experience of “Christmas magic” may sound like a dubious business strategy but is, in fact, quantifiable. Neuroscience has discovered that written language, as a relatively “new” invention in human history, can create only a superficial impression on our brains. In fact, multiple functional MRI studies have shown that we perceive digital text as “less real” than paper. Multi-sensory messages penetrate deepest still, to the true decision maker, our brain. 

Brick-and-mortar stores have the unique opportunity to tap into our subconscious desire for tactile satisfaction by developing a far more memorable and stimulating shopping experience than online shopping. We need to take these spaces to a whole new level to develop synergy with the digital world to create immersive experiences.

With the Internet, shoppers can do their own research and get items delivered from the comfort of home. To generate foot traffic, innovative retailers should offer brag-worthy in-store experiences that reinforce their brand’s lifestyle, and generate valuable word-of-mouth to bolster their digital presence. 

Here’s an example: When Marshall Field’s Chicago flagship opened the elegant wood-paneled “Walnut Room” in 1907, it made history as the first-ever restaurant inside a department store. Now owned by Macy’s, shoppers can still enjoy white linen dining as they cheer on the ceremonial lighting of the “Great Tree.” At a towering 45 feet tall, the tree itself plays a starring role in the Magnificent Mile Parade and Lights Festival, along with Macy’s “SantaLand.” 

Make it their holiday: The choices are endless online, but shoppers will return to a store that makes them feel special by offering personalized recommendations and guidance.

In the UK, Selfridges aims to stand out this year by using zodiac iconography for window displays, merchandising, and special events. By using the recipient’s personality profile as a guide, shoppers are led to thoughtful gifts that will have greater sentimental impact.

Be a pillar of the community: Department stores have played a tremendous role in the character of the community. As the Internet fast-tracked globalization, it has paradoxically led to concerns of social isolation. As a counterbalance, flagships can consciously reflect their city by incorporating local interests and pride, and function as gathering spaces for community events.

Each year, New York City comes alive as upscale retail legends like Tiffany’s, Henri Bendel, and Bloomingdales woo tourists and locals by vying for the most elaborate window displays. Bergdorf Goodman on Fifth Avenue is famous for its hand-made scenes, which were even featured in a Netflix documentary, “Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s.” They may soon be dethroned by Lord & Taylor, where this year’s holiday displays will be based on 125 drawing submissions from area schools and women’s shelters, answering the question, “What Is Christmas Made Of?”

Brick-and-mortar retailers must learn to keep the Christmas spirit year ’round. In-store reinvention should be a proposition that leverages technology to create the ever-changing consumer experience.

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