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Evolution of stores

Note from the editor

It may seem obvious to say that stores have had to evolve in the past two decades as e-commerce infiltrated the industry. Then again, stores have always evolved in order to compete as times, technology and tastes change. And, most of all, to please customers.

In the internet era, a shopper is likely to have made a series of decisions based on information gathered on their phone, well before they get to the store. Which by the way is what most shoppers still do, for practical reasons, and, at least some of the time, because it’s fun.

Yet in important ways, what’s old is new again. Many of the innovations fueling today's successful retailers, for example — like private label differentiation, localization, personalization and convenience — were classic amenities offered by department stores a hundred years ago. These days, Nordstrom is working to update that old-school customer focus for the 21st century, although mass merchants like Target have also paved the way. With convenience conquered by e-retailers, stores must be enticing and experiential, although it’s not always clear what that means. It can help to have captive customers, as at the airport. Meanwhile, some brick-and-mortar experiments have met with mixed results.

Taking stock of physical retail, which in the U.S. is in retreat after over-building for a few decades, means evaluating the future not just of stores but also of shopping centers, which are bifurcating into winners that will thrive and losers that will be increasingly abandoned.

Retail stores may need to evolve, and the stories we’ve gathered here show how many are adapting in a tough market — one made even tougher for operators by a pandemic. But make no mistake, as demonstrated not least by the desire of e-commerce pure-plays to meet their customers in physical spaces, they are definitely sticking around.

Daphne Howland Senior Reporter

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