I recently came across an article by Christopher Gigley in a gift trade magazine from back in 1997. “Anticipate online shoppers” was the headline, and Gigley’s recommendation was that in order to make money through the World Wide Web, retailers needed to think seriously about where this new technology was heading.  

At the time, most online shoppers were men, software being one of the most commonly purchased products. Amazon had launched two years early as an online book marketplace, and just reached the milestone of serving 1.5 million customers and revenue of almost $150 million. In comparison, last year’s sales for Amazon totaled about $575 billion – and increase of over 3500%.

One statement in this article from 25 years ago still rings true – smaller retailers have an advantage, even online, in their ability to spot and react to trends in the marketplace. And while this flexibility remains one of our strengths, it didn’t turn out that “all stores are the same size on a computer screen” (a quote from a gift trade magazine editor at that time). Running a bricks & clicks operation turned out to often require two different skill sets.

The idea of bricks and clicks was just emerging in 1997, with many large and small retailers establishing websites to sell both online and in person. By the way, did you know that the term brick and mortar, referring to a business with a physical presence, first appeared in Moby Dick? It is now considered a ‘retronym,’ which according to Merriam-Webster is a term that adopted to distinguish an original version from something new. (Did I mention that I was an English major?)  In other words, Herman Melville’s term came into new use when online sales made it necessary to distinguish between these new Internet retailers and what we’d been doing all along.

For years, many retailers resisted becoming bricks and clicks, concentrating instead on providing a great in-person customer experience.  But our store – like so many others – ended up turning to the online option for curbside pickup during COVID.  We added hundreds of items to our website to get through those tough years. Now that curbside is in the past, we offer BOPIS (buy online, pick up in store) as an option, but few people take us up on it. This means that keeping our selection on  our website up to date is unfortunately a low priority – but we know that some people do pre-shop it before coming into the store.

Fortunately customers seem happy to be returning to the in-person experience that a good brick and mortar store can offer. Despite the huge changes to our industry in the years since Chris Gigley’s article, I believe that the “real world gift retailers” he addresses can survive and thrive without deciding to sell online. The web has changed the way many people shop, but it looks like there will always be a place for excellent independent retailers.

Happy Retailing,

Carol “Orange” Schroeder