What’s happening with retail?

The stock market’s hitting record highs. Unemployment’s around 4%, the lowest in years. The economic growth rate hit 3% for the last couple quarters. Black Friday and Cyber Monday smashed all-time records, raking in $7 billion on Monday alone.

But record numbers of retailers are downsizing or shuttering their doors, including major players like JC Penney, J Crew and Toys R Us. Malls are increasingly becoming ghost towns. And jewelry independents - some in business for generations - are folding at alarming rates.

What’s the disconnect? Why are retailers floundering with the economy so strong?

Yes, the shift to online shopping has snowballed, reaching critical mass. Think of how you shop now compared to even five years ago. I live in a rural area where options for designer clothes and handbags are limited. But with one click I can order any designer in the world at the best prices and free fast shipping and returns. Remember when Amazon was a bookseller? Now you can order virtually anything online, from electronics and home appliances to groceries and even cars. It’s the new normal. 

But the shift from physical stores to online sales is not just a simple one-way migration. Successful online retailers are in turn opening brick-and-mortars. Amazon, responsible for HALF of internet sales, recently bought Whole Foods and its 460 physical stores. Blue Nile’s opening up strategic mall “webrooms,” showrooms where you can see and touch limited inventory and a jewelry consultant can guide you thru their virtual inventory, an escalating trend.

It’s not just that people are abandoning brick-and-mortar retailers and going digital. The landscape’s more complex and nuanced. The boundaries between brick-and-mortar and digital are becoming more fluid. You get ideas from visiting stores. You try things on and may finish with an online purchase.  While initially browsing at stores, you may be price checking competitors or taking photos and texting friends for feedback. At other times, you do your internet research first and finish with a purchase at a regular store - or order your item to be picked up there. 

The line between virtual and real is fading. Reality’s becoming an aspect of virtual reality. In the early days of computers, the digital experience was one thing, “the real world” was another. You sat at your desktop and entered the virtual world, a novel experience. Remember “You’ve Got Mail”? When the idea of connecting with someone digitally was novel? That now seems quaint. With the advent of iPhones, we’re always connected with virtual reality, even in “the real world.”

Customers want the best of both worlds. We’re increasingly inhabiting a superworld where virtual and physical reality simultaneously coexist. We want the unlimited access to information the virtual world provides - the variety and ease, the best prices. But we don’t always just want to sit at our computer. We want to go out and have fun. When Apple launches a new iPhone, people love to line up from early the day before, to make the shopping experience memorable. Black Friday after Thanksgiving dinner is a new form of family entertainment, with stores providing the excitement, the entertainment - all the bells and whistles.

How to capitalize on this trend? First, entice with your online presence - your website, Facebook, Instagram - to tantalize your clients. Then clinch it by following up with a dynamic experience only available face to face. Offer music and refreshments. Think outside the box.

Customers at Eddie Bauer can test their cold weather parkas in an Ice Box - an in-store ice room. Host Trunk Show parties where clients interact with designers. And be sure everything’s digitally connected. Does your store have large screen TVs showing the stories behind your products? Encourage your customers to take selfies with their wish list items and post on Facebook. Go Live on Facebook and Instagram with virtual Trunk Shows.

Reality’s shifting. To thrive, you have to shift your world view, providing memorable experiences and incorporating the digital into all aspects of it. There will be new players and big winners. To be one, you’ve got to roll with it. It’s a brave new world.

Mia Katrin is an award-winning jewelry designer featured in over 100 top stores nationally. She is available for lectures and seminars. To add her Collections or book a lecture: www.jeweljewel.com, 877-539-3569, facebook.com/MiaKatrinforJEWELCOUTURELLC, subscribe to her YouTube channel www.youtube.com/channel/UC2B-53XBuB_HD5-bofc5jAA