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Brick-and-mortar stores gearing up in fight against online buying

Retailers see them in the aisles.They handle the items, carefully consider them ... and then pull out their phones in search of a cheaper price online.

As a brick-and-mortar retailer, it’s easy to hate the internet. The internet can turn a store into an expensive showcase for non-customers — or even an empty storefront as everyone stays home to click on items online.

But seeing it as brick versus click is a recipe for disaster, said Aviation Mall General Manager James Griffith.

“The thing with in-store versus online is, if you’re not doing both, you’re on the outs,” he said.

He advises stores in the mall to get online as a way to draw people to their physical location.

“Many stores online show you what they have in-store, so you don’t have to drive from store to store,” he said.

Price match is becoming popular, too. The goal is to catch those customers before they walk out with that lower price. Eating $10 is better than not selling the product at all, some store owners believe.

Social media sites can draw people in with promotions, and Griffith ran three holiday promotions for stores through the mall’s social media accounts last year.

But there are many stores that aren’t online at all — no website, no Facebook page, sometimes not even a listing on a map.

“We’ve had to help be that tool,” Griffith said.

Those stores are not winning the brick versus click war.

Then there are stores like Target, which is trying to meld its website with its stores. The Aviation Mall Target store recently became a distribution center for online purchases in the region. There are 1,418 Target distribution centers, which allows the company to compete with Amazon on shipping times.

Company-wide, the change last November allowed Target to get more than half of its holiday orders to the customer within two days, said store manager Ben Flint.

“It’s in real time,” Flint said. “We’ll get an order at 3 p.m. It’s potentially at the guest’s house the following morning.”

He hired 20 to 30 more people over the holiday season, beyond his normal holiday hiring, because he needed to ship out so many orders.

He is also aware of the window shoppers who stroll through his store, but he loves them.

“What a great opportunity!” Flint said. “If I can get them in the store, I can sell to them.”

His employees emphasize price match to those who are wielding a smart phone.

“The guest has no reason not to buy here,” he said.

Flint is also trying for a small-store feel. He sends employees to “expert training” in their area. That means that employees who work in the clothing aisles, for example, have been trained on how to put together an outfit from diverse items. Those in food have been taught what foods go well together.

“I’m trying to have personalized service,” he said.

It worked last Christmas.

“Target had an amazing holiday season,” Flint said. While he could not give out numbers for his store, he said it had similar growth to the rest of the company and he expects the store to grow more in 2018.

“We were very pleased with the holiday season,” he said.

Other stores are using online orders to draw in customers by offering free shipping to any store.

At JCPenney, customers must pick up their ordered merchandise by walking to the back of the store, past carefully placed end caps and displays. When they get to the pickup counter, they’re often carrying other items to buy. There’s a cashier there ready to ring them out.

Then there’s placement of the store itself.

One outlet store might not draw many people, outlet owners said. But put dozens of them together and you have the huge draw that is the Million Dollar Half-Mile in Queensbury.

Likewise, in a mall, Griffith advises store owners to consider what other stores would draw their type of customer. As an example, he noted Victoria's Secret near Target.

“If they share a similar demographic, they want to be in the same area,” he said.

Jonathan Reid, a men’s formal clothing store, has a different way of drawing in people.

Employees measure customers to get an exact fit for the suits, sports jackets and tuxedos they sell. They set up tailoring when needed as well.

“In my business, tailoring makes the finished product significantly better,” said owner Jeff Ives. “I don’t know a lot of online tailors.”

He also encourages customers to come in and get what they want the first time, rather than buying online, trying it on and sending it back repeatedly.

“You are just hoping when you purchase online. Doing it in person allows you to touch, sample and try on the product you wish to buy,” he said. “Too many people simply settle for items that they have purchased online because it is ‘close enough.’ “

He tells customers that they get more choices in a brick-and-mortar store.

“There are far more options to acquiring the right product when shopping in person, although that may not seem possible with the endless supply of options online,” Ives said. “When you come into a store, you have the options of comparing one item to another in terms of fit, style and color, and choosing which one you like the best, by seeing both options up close.”

His customers seem to agree. Business is booming at Jonathan Reid, so Ives plans to expand to Crossgates Mall on Sept. 1.

He asked to be placed near Macy’s, even though that means he will have to compete with a much bigger store.

“Twenty years ago, I would’ve seen Macy’s as a big competitor,” he said.

But the big stores, he argues, have focused so much on price in their competition with each other and the internet that they no longer purchase only items that meet their level of quality. Buying from Macy’s no longer means that the item will be high quality, he said.

Ives predicts that many customers looking for fine suits will walk out of Macy’s disappointed.

“And then they’ll see me,” he said.

There are indications that big-box stores are under heavy strain. In the past month, Bon-Ton and Toys R Us both announced closure plans in the area. Sears and Macy’s also announced closures, though not in this region.

The landlord for the Queensbury Toys R Us quickly agreed to reduce the lease to get the store to stay. But as soon as customers heard it might close, they flooded the store and blamed themselves for the potential loss of a huge toy store.

“I am guilty of shopping online,” said Peggy Brown of Saratoga, who was one of many who visited the store recently to make up for her online shopping.

Once she walked in the door, she loved being there, even though the store didn’t have the tiny doll clothes she wanted.

“But I have to say, it’s been a lot of fun being here, seeing things I wouldn’t have looked for,” she said.