E-commerce and bricks-and-mortar retail don’t have to hate each other

Where online and offline retail meet.
Where online and offline retail meet.
Image: Reuters/Luke MacGregor
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E-commerce stores and physical storefronts don’t always have to be locked in a zero-sum battle. A recent case in point: At least 50 UK merchants of eBay, one of the world’s largest online retailers, are teaming up with a popular British catalog retailer, Argos. Customers will be able to order items online and pick up them up at one of 150 Argos stores for a trial of six months, according to eBay. The trial begins later this year.

“The distinction between offline and online shopping continues to blur,” eBay president Devin Wenig said in an emailed statement. “Traditional retail isn’t going away; it is transforming.”

The move is the latest in a small but burgeoning trend in which online and physical stores are treading the line between traditional and online retail. The goal is to give shoppers the best of both worlds—online prices with in-store service, and not having to wait for the post. Retail insiders call this an “omni-channel” strategy where customers can shop online or in a store, or some combination of the two.

Formerly online-only stores like men’s clothing retailer Bonobos have started opening storefronts. ASOS, a UK fashion group that’s also an online-only, lets customers pick up their items at local shops. In the past, eBay has opened temporary physical stores during holiday seasons. Under the trial tie-up with Argos, eBay customers will not have to pay shipping costs for items they pick up in stores.

The eBay-Argos deal is also one way to compete with Amazon, which offers next-day delivery service and an easy return policy, but lacks extensive pick-up options. (Amazon customers can pick up items at kiosks or “lockers” in some major cities in the UK and the US.)

Another point for the confluence between e-commerce and traditional retail is that research suggests shoppers are still attached to stores—and not just to check out items to purchase later online, which is called “showrooming.” According to a survey of customers who shop via their mobile phones, things like price-matching, convenience, or being part of a store’s loyalty programs were most likely to persuade shoppers to buy from a physical store rather than online.