Companies & Industries

Major Canadian e-tailer opens first physical store—but sales aren't the reason


A rendering of the new Vancouver store on Robson Street. (Photo courtesy of Coastal Contacts Inc.)

A rendering of the new Vancouver store on Robson Street. (Photo courtesy of Coastal Contacts Inc.)

It wasn’t long ago when traditional retailers started making the jump to online, offering customers a way to buy wares from the comfort of their own homes. But now that shift could be reversing, as more and more online retailers first build their brands on the web before moving into the brick-and-mortar game.

Coastal Contacts Inc., Canada’s biggest online eyewear store, is just the latest e-tailer to get physical. The Vancouver-based company, which runs in Canada and in the U.S., is opening its first physical store on Robson Street, Vancouver’s premiere shopping district, this spring.

“There’s only so much you can learn from surveys and focus groups,” explains Aaron Magness, the company’s VP of marketing. And it’s that limitation that laid the foundation for the new store, he says. While he expects the company will remain web-first, web-only was too limiting.

“100% brick-and-mortar creates a challenge for the consumer because it’s not convenient,” he says, but with “100% online, you miss the opportunity to engage with your customer and find out what makes them tick.”

Major e-tailers like Ebay and Etsy—it’s like the former but specializes in hand-made goods—have already experimented with temporary pop-up shops, but Coastal Contacts wanted to go a step further and open something permanent.

“We think there’s a real opportunity here,” Magness says. The first store will be a testing ground for future locations, focussing largely on customer experience and interaction—there will even be an eye-care professional on site to conduct tests. The move, he says, is less about sales (the vast majority of which will still come from online) and more about understanding its customers.

The store’s success, therefore, is hard to measure. Even if the Robson Street location doesn’t justify itself in sales, it could nonetheless prove hugely successful. The reason is simple: fundamentally, this isn’t an investment in stores—it’s an investment in you.

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