Stores: Do Shoppers Really Like Them?
The reputation of “the store” has taken a real beating in the past 10+ years. After it became clear to the industry that “omnichannel” was real and that consumers were increasingly starting their shopping journeys in the digital domain, pundits, analysts, and technology companies began predicting the imminent demise of the store as we know it. The idea of a “retail apocalypse” became fashionable in 2015. In 2017, retail thought leader Scott Galloway declared that, “people are no longer going to stores for products. They can find them for less online.” And when COVID-19 hit in 2020, none other than IBM estimated that the pandemic had accelerated the shift away from physical stores to digital shopping by roughly five years.
Well, as comedian Chris Rock famously said, “There’s math… and everything else is debatable.” Luckily, governments track this sort of thing. For example, the U.S. Census Bureau faithfully reports Ecommerce sales as a total of all sales, and in its most recent report (November ’23), the data showed that store sales still represented about 84% of total sales:
One final point: store openings exceeded store closings in 2022 and 2023, despite several high-profile bankruptcies. So, to paraphrase a misquote attributed to American humorist Mark Twain, reports of the death of stores are greatly exaggerated.
During RSR’s 2024 research preview, my partner Steve Rowen commented that “we’re really high on stores”. That wasn’t wishful thinking – it is what consumers tell us through our surveys. For example, a recent RSR survey of over 1100 U.S. based shoppers revealed that across retail verticals, the vast majority of shopping journeys end in the store:
Source: RSR Research, November 2023
These findings should be good news for retailers, but they come with a qualification: consumers want something more than they are currently getting:
Source: RSR Research, November 2023
It’s findings like these which cause RSR to benchmark the “state of the store” nearly every year. While the evidence is pretty clear that consumers are okay with shopping in stores, they want the experience to be better. But the counterargument from retailers is that they can’t just spend their way into modernity:
Source: RSR Research, February 2024
The brutality of the store-level P&L is hard to overcome – I have yet to meet a retailer that wants to increase controllable expenses in the store. That gives rise to all the efforts we’re seeing both in our research and in the popular press as retailers look for new efficiencies, whether it’s automating non-selling processes, rationalizing assortments and promos, addressing “shrink” issues associated with theft or spoilage, improving employee performance with focused training, or rigorously controlling such things as energy consumption.
Every penny counts, and if retailers are going to respond to consumer expectations about having digital capabilities in the physical store, they know they have to find the money to pay for it all somehow. And the one button that retailers can’t push is to raise prices to pass the costs on to consumers.
All of these challenges make interesting fodder for RSR benchmark studies.
But to get back to the question, “do consumers really like shopping in stores?”, retailers are counting on the notion that shopping is more than a necessity, that it is a social activity, and it can even be fun! Some psychological studies have suggested that shopping can help reinforce a sense of personal control over our environment and even help with feelings of sadness (thus all the talk about “retail therapy”). Other studies have suggested that the anticipation of finding bargains in a store releases dopamine to the brain – in other words, we humans derive a sense of pleasure from shopping in a store. But guess what? We apparently get an even greater sense of pleasure in waiting for that online purchase to arrive at the door!
So, the answer to the question, “do consumers really like shopping in stores?” is “yes – but don’t take it for granted!” What will continue to drive shoppers to the store is convenience, fun, immediacy, lifestyle relevance, and of course, good prices. Everything that retailers do in the stores has to serve those factors – and be done in such a way that can still deliver profits.
Bottom line, stores are still important! And that’s why RSR continues to benchmark the state of the retail store. Look for our 2024 update to be released late in February.
 Mark Twain never said, “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” What he really said was, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”