How brick-and-mortar storefronts boost sales for online retailers

Clearly Contacts founder Roger Hardy’s experience shows that physical stores can close the deal with curious but unconvinced customers

Canadian Business Sales Week

Interior of ShoeMe’s storefront location in Toronto

Interior of ShoeMe’s storefront location in Toronto. (ShoeMe)

It’s easy to see why a bricks-and-mortar retailer would want to expand into online sales; less so why digital-first retailers would want to start paying rent and salespeople’s salaries. But if not everyone, then a great many online retailers are embracing the idea of “omni-channel” sales—in-store, online and mobile.

“We were a pioneer in ’07, ’08 when we started opening retail stores,” says Roger Hardy, speaking of his old company, prescription eyewear seller Coastal Contacts (now a division of Essilor Inc. and branded as Clearly). Back then, he says, Coastal opened stores largely on faith that the physical presence would provide a lift to online sales as well as attract new customers less confident in buying online.

“Today we have a formula in mind,” he says, in reference to his latest venture, shoe vendor The organization is opening a Toronto store in July and a Vancouver outlet in September, both under the Canadian brand ( already operates two legacy stores in the U.S. as a result of acquisitions there.) The stores are expected to reach a target of $800 to $1,000 in sales per square foot within 14 to 18 months, Hardy says. “The store does need to stand on its own, absolutely.”

But—and here’s the real reason why so many online retailers are doing it—the addition of stores has also been shown to boost digital sales. “We open stores in markets where we already have customers and this has a multiplier effect,” Hardy says. “It will bring the brand to life for those customers who have engaged with our brand but for whatever reason haven’t made a purchase.” The company knows from its data analytics that a significant group of potential customers knows the ShoeMe brand through advertising, has perused the website and even loaded up a virtual cart—but aborted the mission just before checkout, wanting the reassurance of seeing, touching and smelling the merchandise.

“This gives them the chance to do that,” Hardy says. “They’ll get a feel for our people, our culture.” In addition to the samples on hand, sales associates can show customers the extended inventory on a tablet computer and take a measurement of their foot to keep on file such that “that next order can easily be done online,” he says.

Like the online experience, the in-store sales process will be driven by customer enquiry, Hardy says. However, given that traditional retailers have adopted the omni-channel ethos as well, he expects you’d find little difference in kind between ShoeMe’s sales associates and ones you’d find at a shoe store. “We’re hiring for a cultural fit—people who are interested and engaged in the category,” he says. The more things change, in other words, the more they stay the same.