Commentary

Offline Shopping Is Alive And Trampling

Black Friday Shoppers Hunt For Holiday Bargains

Shoppers crowd a Best Buy store at dawn on Black Friday. Spencer Platt/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Spencer Platt/Getty Images

It’s been 16 years since Amazon launched and we’re well into an era when we can buy just about anything with a few clicks. And yet we find ourselves entering another holiday season of familiar Black Friday headlines about shoppers being trampled in a mad effort to get their mitts on the latest offline deal. Take it from a guy named Keith who nearly bought it at the entrance to a Target in Buffalo.

A decade ago I would have predicted that by now Keith would spend his Black Fridays tucked behind a laptop in the safety of his own home. I underestimated the resilience of terrestrial stores. Sure, a combination of e-commerce and a difficult economy have left many storefronts vacant, and certain verticals like record stores and local bookstores have been hit hard. But plenty of people who could find better deals faster online are still getting in their cars and heading to the mall.

One irony of this era is the explosive success of the Apple retail stores. People line up outside the stores that sell the very devices that were supposedly going to doom terrestrial shopping. On Black Friday, local Apple outlets were selling an average of 8.8 iPads an hour. Wouldn’t it be easier to buy an iPad on a computer? Can we at least predict that those who bought these iPads will buy their next one using their iPad?

Probably not.

Apple launched its first retail store almost 10 years ago, at the moment e-commerce was set to really take hold. Today they operate more than 300 stores that did a cool $3.5 billion in revenue last year.

Stores like Apple and Best Buy sell the products you’d think we’d be most likely to buy online, yet we’re still heading to stores — even when it means braving the most aggressive holiday crowds.

Groupon has been described as the fastest growing company ever. Instead of taking business away from offline stores, its entire business model is aimed at providing discounts that send you to your local stores. In its first national deal, Groupon got more than 440,000 internet users to buy a coupon for use at Gap stores – not at gap.com. Not many Web experts predicted that one of the hottest companies on the internet would be providing a new way to distribute coupons for use at local retailers.

On one hand, the pace at which online brands have entered the mainstream has been astonishing. This year’s Cyber Monday chalked up more than $1 billion in sales. On the other hand, does it surprise you that Amazon is only the 26th-largest retailer in the United states? Sears is number nine.

I’m equally addicted to convenience and the Internet, and yet I just got back from a two-hour stroll through a massive Target store. Could I have purchased the same items faster, easier, and cheaper without leaving my desk? Maybe. But there is still something about being in a store, seeing and holding the products and loading a real shopping cart, not just a virtual one. And the Web has always been better for searching than browsing.

There’s also the community element. I would never trade the experience of regularly taking my son to our local market for the supposed convenience of an online grocer. I know almost everyone in the store a few blocks from my house. The guys in the butcher shop know I’m a Jewish vegetarian, so they give me a fist bump when I buy the rest of my family a couple pounds of center-cut bacon.

I’m sure Norm Peterson would continue to head down to the Cheers bar even after he realized he could have beer delivered by Safeway.com. Sometimes you want to be where everyone knows your name, not just your username.

Dave Pell is a San Francisco based, Web-addicted insider, investor and entrepreneur. He has been blogging for more than a decade. This post first appeared on his blog Tweetage Wasteland.

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