There’s no longer a difference between physical and digital retail

Everyone used to say e-commerce was going to destroy bricks and mortar. The story turned out to be more complicated

Shopper in the physical Amazon store in Seattle

Amazon opened a physical store to put its extensive retailing expertise to use, and to collect more data. (Halden Krog/Bloomberg/Getty)

This article is part of our What We Learned in 2015 series. More to come.

In July, photography retailer Blacks announced it was closing all of its 59 bricks-and-mortar stores. Instead, the business will continue as an online-only enterprise. Other companies will likely follow the camera dealer to the digital realm. The Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) is pressing Canadian retailers to step up their e-commerce game: Canadians spent $21 billion online in 2014—a 30% increase in just two years, according to BDC stats.

Figures like that make opening a bricks-and-mortar store in the real world seem like an antiquated idea. Things like rent, window displays and salespeople are ever so 20th century, after all.

Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, and the guy who basically pioneered e-commerce, doesn’t seem to think so. The online retailing giant opened a physical bookstore in a Seattle shopping centre in early November. Furthermore, Canadian retailers that started online—brands like tailor Indochino, vision-care provider Clearly and menswear label Park & Province—have also been launching physical storefronts while still growing their online sales. Shoppers enjoy interacting with items before purchasing, and having a physical presence helps retailers build relationships and hone their aesthetic—crucial building blocks for a strong online presence .

Data-hungry Amazon will use its store to study consumer preferences even more closely. In the process, it hopes to garner a little goodwill from book lovers who blame the company for driving independent bookstores to extinction. Another benefit? While you can buy practically anything on the web, even Amazon can’t (yet) deliver the instant gratification of buying a book and then immediately cracking it open. The future of retail still has one foot in the past.