Economists and business experts have long been predicting the demise of the brick-and-mortar store, as online businesses have begun to dominate sales in many areas of retail. While there have been a few fatalities (Borders, Circuit City) in the battle between online and traditional retailers, it’s become increasingly clear that the brick-and-mortar shopping experience isn’t going anywhere. Why? Part of the reason could be that some traditional retailers have simply gotten it right, offering consumers an experience they simply can’t replicate through an online store.
Here, we highlight some of the best brick-and-mortar store experiences out there, though not a complete list by any means. Some offer amazing customer service, others enviable showrooms, and all of them a truly unique shopping experience that no e-commerce site could ever match.
Whether you love Apple or hate it, you can’t deny they’ve designed more than a place to sell products with their stores worldwide. Apple has created a store experience that’s as sleek and user-friendly as their products, and, as anyone who has battled through the weekend crowds can tell you, immensely popular. Customers who have problems with merchandise can get an appointment with the in-house “Geniuses” who will look at, fix, or replaced damaged products. The geniuses aren’t the only part of the service experience that customers like, as most stores are heavily-staffed and employees can check out customers right from their iPhones — no waiting in line required. Apple has also branched out into offering classes, which can help customers learn how to better use the varied lines of products the company sells. If that wasn’t already enough, sleek, clean, and modern architecture creates a place where people just want to come to hang out and take advantage of the free Wi-Fi. Apple’s stores are so good that they’ve spawned a bevy of copycats in China, who’ve pirated not only their merchandise, but their shopping experience as well.
West Coasters and Midwesterners might not have heard of this retail giant, but on the East Coast, Wegmans is a pretty big deal, and has some very loyal fans who often drive out of their way to shop in their stores. In business for more than 90 years, the family-owned supermarket chain must be doing something right, as it has over $6 billion in sales and a cult-like following. What makes Wegmans so great? The store offers an amazing customer experience, creating an enormous indoor market that offers up products that may not be widely available and encourages shoppers to slow down and enjoy the scenery rather than rushing through errands. There are also a number of eat-in options and fun ways for customers to customize their own experience (including a make-your-own trail mix bar) that make the stores stand out from the competition. The company is also known for being a great employer, making Fortune magazine’s “Best Places to Work” list every year since 1998. Happy employees very often make happy customers, which is no doubt why many shoppers keep returning to this store.
3. Whole Foods
Whole Foods’ flagship locations, in major cities around the world, redefine just what a grocery shopping experience can be. Customers can do everything — from having their own peanut butter freshly ground to stocking up on olives from an olive bar to getting a sustainably-harvested piece of salmon cut and marinated. While many trek to Whole Foods in search of organic, healthy foods (though the store sells other less healthful options as well) major locations are about more than bringing home groceries. Many offer several dining options, from tacos to sushi, and some even have an in-house bar, complete with an impressive organic beer and wine selection. Large bakeries, wine bars, huge selections of cheese, free Wi-Fi, amazing produce offerings, juice bars, and even massage rooms help make the shopping experience at Whole Foods like no other, and keep many customers coming back week after week.
IKEA may not be the destination for customers who like to be waited on hand and foot, but there is no denying it offers a certain kind of experience that has yet to be truly replicated by other stores. This Swedish retailer, founded in 1943, has over 326 stores in 38 countries around the world, with over $23.1 billion in sales. IKEA stores are designed to wind customers through large, showrooms that showcase a variety of ways in which customers can use IKEA merchandise. Even on a weekday (weekends at IKEA are notoriously crowded), going through the giant stores can be an all-day event, and there are on-site restaurants to help hungry shoppers keep up their energy. Parents can also drop off their young ones at Smaland, a fun playground that offers on-site childcare, to shop unhindered. While long lines, crowded rooms, and DIY attitude may not suit every shopper, the stores offer something unique, though IKEA is another retailer who has seen a number of copycats spring up in China.
Few toys still get adults as excited as LEGOs. The small plastic blocks have been a playtime staple for over 60 years, and continue to delight and fascinate adults and children alike. LEGO stores can be found in many major cities around the world, and the shopping experience they offer is often quite memorable. Stores usually feature large sculptures made of the tiny blocks that are unfailingly impressive and have captured everyone from Einstein to King Tut in modular, plastic form. The stores are designed to be highly interactive, offering kids (and their nostalgic parents) the chance to play with the toys before they ever bring them home. Additionally, features like the opportunity to “Build Your Own Brick” allow shoppers to customize what they will take home with them, and pop culture sets, especially those from the Star Wars line, get adults as into the LEGO shopping experience as their children.
6. FAO Schwarz
FAO Schwarz is a child’s wonderland (and, let’s be honest, adults get pretty excited there, too) with amazing, often high-end displays of toys that kids can look at and interact with. While there used to be several large locations of this toy retailer worldwide, today only the most famous is left: the brand’s flagship store in downtown New York. It’s here that visitors will find the famous giant piano, featured in the 1988 film Big, that is played by jumping or stepping on the keys. There are numerous other interactive features that make it an amazing destination, including a create-your-own Barbie studio, a pottery studio, Muppet workshops, and the ability to try out just about every toy in the store. And that doesn’t even touch on the myriad of items that decorate the store, like giant stuffed animals, LEGO sculptures, and even an enormous Trojan horse. All of these combine to create a shopping experience unmatched by any other toy store in the world.
While the average Macy’s shopping experience might not be mind-blowing, visiting one of their flagship locations is certainly something special. One of the biggest department stores in the world, Macy’s original location in New York rises five stories, and has been a historic landmark since 1978. There is little that customers won’t find in the giant store, with departments that range from cosmetics to appliances, at both the mid- and high-end ranges. Macy’s also has a notable store in downtown Chicago, which it took over from Marshall Fields in 2007. This building is also a historic landmark, and one of the largest department stores in the world. It features an amazing Tiffany mosaic ceiling and stunning interior architecture (including a massive seven-story atrium), both of which make it an awe-inspiring shopping experience for many visitors. There is, perhaps, no better time to visit a Macy’s location for a truly special shopping experience than at the holidays. The New York store puts together the Thanksgiving Day Parade on the streets of Manhattan, and the Chicago store puts a shimmering Christmas tree beneath the Tiffany-decorated ceiling each year, which guests can dine around in one of Macy’s many restaurants.
Build-A-Bear stores starting springing up in 1997 and have grown in popularity, with locations around the world today. Children and their parents can visit these fun locations and create their own custom stuffed animals. While bears are often the most popular choice, kids can pick from a variety of creatures and watch as they are sewn and stuffed, taking home their own customized treasure at the end of the trip. The stores also stand out for how they treat their workers, with glowing reviews that help keep it a happy, positive place for employees and visitors alike. For those who like to give back, the store offers ample opportunities. Visitors can donate and build stuffed animals at several major events throughout the year, which are given to various family and child-centered causes.
Niketown is the retail name for global athletic brand Nike, and their stores have been popping up around the world since the first opened in 1990 in downtown Portland, Ore. Niketown isn’t your run-of-the-mill athletic apparel store, however. Cool architecture, eye-catching and innovative displays, and loads of opportunities to interact with products make it a much more fun way to shop for workout gear. Customers can even sit down to a computer and customize their own pair of kicks, and any shoes can be tried out on a treadmill before they’re brought home. Customer service is also key at Niketown stores, with all stores having access to the NikeFind system, which can help customers locate a style or size they need from anywhere in the U.S. A generous return policy doesn’t hurt either, as customers can return any merchandise they’re unsatisfied with, even worn, within a month. Some stores even feature in-house basketball courts so shoppers can test out footwear and have fun while shopping.
Swatch may not have the cachet it once did in the ’80s as a must-have item, but the retailer hasn’t lost any hipness in its store designs. Take their flagship store in downtown Manhattan, for instance. Shoppers won’t find any other watch-shopping experience like it in the world. Called the Swatch Timeship, the building has amazing displays, blending shopping with innovative and often mechanized architecture. Customers can grab a stool and choose from a menu of watches at the store’s watch bar (you can order drinks as well). If you find one you like, you can try it on after it’s sent your way through a series of pneumatic tubes that run through the store. And if you’ve already got a watch that needs some TLC, bring it to the store’s Dr. Swatch section for new batteries, repairs, and cleaning. The fun, innovative experience of the store leaves customers thinking about time (and their timepieces) in a whole new way.
This article was first published at OnlineMBA.com.