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Nearly since the dawn of the Internet and certainly since the rise of Amazon, an overriding theme in retail has centered on: How are brick-and-mortar stores going to compete with e-commerce sites? Storefront There has been all kinds of hand-wringing about showrooming and a growing dread as whole retail sectors, like books and music, have all but disappeared from the brick-and-mortar landscape. The Internet provides instant price comparison, infinite inventory and the ability for consumers to take charge of their shopping experience. With Amazon in particular, there is no way for physical stores to compete on price or selection, for that matter. Retailers are diving into innovations like beacons, in-store mobile initiatives and ways to transparently gather the sort of consumer data that is available on the Web. They’re striving to provide buy-online-pickup-in-store (BOPUS) — all of which are good, but maybe not the most effective way to keep customers coming into their stores. It turns out, according to recent polling, one of the highest-value maneuvers that retailers can make is ensuring that shoppers are able to checkout quickly, once they actually find what they were looking for. A recent report by eMarketer, relying on research by TimeTrade, says that when asked about their biggest frustrations at brick-and-mortar stores, consumers put slow checkout at the top of the list. Nearly 30 percent listed slow checkout as their pet peeve. Beyond that, another 21 percent said they were most frustrated by long lines at checkout, which was offered as a distinct response. That could be a sign that retailers looking to save a few bucks by understaffing their registers and sales floors might be guilty of a miscalculation. But the finding also points to a deeper truth that won’t come as a shock to anyone in the retail game: The key to maintaining foot traffic is to provide shoppers with a memorable and enjoyable experience. Shopping is more than commerce for many. It’s a social event, a competition (the thrill of the hunt; the joy of a bargain). It’s the new “show” in the old tradition of going out for “dinner and a show.” The same eMarketer report, again based on TimeTrade research, said that 64 percent of shoppers decided which store to frequent based on “the overall experience I have when I’m in the store.” The TimeTrade survey asked consumers if an item were the same price at four different stores, how would you decide where to make the purchase? And no doubt that “experience” includes the physical condition and environment in the store itself. Is it the kind of place where people want to hangout? Are there comfortable spots to sit and socialize? Maybe a coffee bar or even an actual bar (fifth item) for that matter. That’s all important, but in many ways, as explained in this Business Insider piece that explores the phenomenal success of the Apple Store, it comes down to employing the right people (and having enough of them). Crowd To get back to Amazon — and face it, Amazon is always looming — those who have done some deep thinking about how to survive the Seattle giant’s unfettered expansion always come back to experience. In its recent e-book “The Retailers Guide to Competing with Amazon,” customer experience consultancy Medallia concluded that the shopping experience was the most fruitful place for retailers to try to differentiate themselves from Amazon. “Can you beat Amazon with experience?” the book asks. “Yes — and compared to the other levers discussed in this e-book, this is your biggest opportunity to win.” The e-book does talk about the physical store, adding food, empowering sales staffs, etc., but it also reminds retailers that the shopping experience goes beyond the store’s four walls. Medallia recommends a building a mobile experience that is a virtual shopping assistant. The report cites Deloitte Digital’s work, which concluded that 36 cents of every dollar spent in a store is influenced by a digital interaction, a significant number of those being on mobile. All of which underscores the importance of not just building a powerful mobile experience, but also closely integrating all digital channels — smartphone, tablet, desktop — with the in-store experience. No doubt the talk about brick-and-mortar surviving in the Internet age will continue. But it’s clear the conversation is becoming more sophisticated and nuanced. Photo of co-op storefront by Tim Evanson, photo of crowd by Diariocritico de Venezuela published under Creative Commons License. Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Contact him at mike.cassidy@bloomreach.com; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.