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By: Anna Cheng

Debates are ongoing about whether e-commerce will take over physical retailing someday. Consumers are increasingly combining online shopping with a visit to a physical retail store to build their personal shopping experience. The ability of optical retailers to successfully build on both of these channels will give them an opportunity to gain a larger share of the world’s US$109 billion eyewear industry (2015).

While bricks and mortar retailers are worried about the invasion of online retailing, the same holds true for online retailers. Established online retailers are beginning to see the value in using physical retail stores to grow their businesses. Despite the convenience that online shopping brings, the lack of knowledge and absence of a professional touch are still barriers for many consumers, especially in an industry where a personal eyecare service is crucial to the end product.

E-commerce giants make the move into retail outlets

Despite internet retailing thriving, physical stores are still standing strong, as they offer benefits that internet retailing cannot address. Having consumers walk into a physical store allows the retailer an opportunity to up-sell and cross-sell. Although internet retailing makes use of technology by tracking the browsing behaviour of consumers, the lack of human interaction does not allow internet retailers to actually detect the emotions of the consumer. Over the years, various e-commerce players have made this move by complimenting their online operations with a physical retail store. The way these stores operate varies; they can be seasonal, permanent or showrooms where transactions take place online. For example, e-commerce giants such as eBay and Google are moving into store based retail as well.

In 2011, eBay opened the first Christmas pop-up boutique in London, showcasing highly rated sellers’ product and encouraging consumers to purchase them online or through mobile apps. This store operates for 5 days during festive seasons where purchases will be shipped directly to their doorstep, bringing online shopping into an in-store experience.

Earlier this year, Google unveiled its first shop-in-shop in Currys PC World store on London’s Tottenham Court Road. It is a shop in shop concept where Google’s products are sold and the Google Shop offers training and workshop for users to experiment and learn about the seamless online life using Google’s product.  Although not a standalone store like Apple, this could be Google’s first move into the realm of physical stores. If the shop-in-shop concept takes off successfully in the UK, more Google shops like this might take off in other parts of the world, alongside actual standalone stores.

Similar movement in the eyewear scene

In the eyewear scene, similar movement has been seen over the years; two such examples have come from Warby Parker and Clearly. In 2010, Warby Parker started operations as a pure online eyewear retailer. By the end of this year, however, Warby Parker will have opened its 17th physical store, this time in the city of San Diego. Warby Parker offers affordable eyewear to its consumer, combining home trial services for its frames. Its retail space acts more like a showroom than an actual retail store, with the company keen to create a unique experience that consumers do not see in other eyewear retail stores.

Warby Parker Lincoln Park store

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Source: www.warbyparker.com

Clearly is an online retailer of contact lenses and eyeglasses in Canada. Despite being well established online, it was lacking in terms of the service it provides, ie interaction between the consumer and eye care practitioner. By operating its own retail store in 2013, it allows the business to deliver a holistic shopping experience to the consumer, providing both eye care and eyewear.

There are limitations to how much a business can grow online. There are no clear distinctions between online and in-store shopping, consumers today sees them all as shopping and are looking for new shopping experiences. Through social media such as blogs, Instagram, Facebook, twitter and tumblr, consumers and business owners can seamlessly exchange ideas, communicate and share experiences. Consumers no longer rely on a single buying channel; more successful e-commerce businesses are therefore likely to enter store-based retailing in future, and vice versa, providing a wholesome omni-channel shopping experience for the consumer.

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