Being a busy professional and parent with very little time, I do a lot of shopping online in the late evening or wee hours of the morning…and sometimes while watching my kid at a sporting event. But I am also a pretty big fan of perusing my warehouse club (which I need to keep anonymous, so let’s just call it “MWC”) for gigantic packages of things I do and don’t really need. Call it the thrill of the hunt or immediate gratification or what you will, but there is something intrinsically satisfying for me about finding a great deal on an item in a physical store and bringing it home. I also have my standard list of items I buy on a regular basis from MWC. Judging from the hoards of people I see each time I shop there, I’m not alone. I would venture to guess that many people share my shopping behaviors.

I just read a great article about how warehouse clubs are competing with Amazon and it speculated about how much of an impact Amazon’s foray into grocery and same-day delivery may have on them. For the near future, until Amazon really moves past its experimental stage into mass reach, the warehouse clubs, superstores and other grocers probably don’t have much to worry about. But if Amazon gets this model right and can make its same-day delivery model even slightly profitable and offers it everywhere, will it then impact its brick-and-mortar competitors?

Is MWC doomed? I really don’t think so.

Why? If done the right way, it’s the in-store experience that will keep customers coming back. “To a warehouse club” you say? Yes. And I know it’s just a big box filled with lots of shelving, boxes, pallets, concrete floors and usually too many other people.

Let me explain. In addition to offering a great assortment (and yes, the thrill of the hunt), MWC employs top-notch staff. They are personable, friendly, helpful and highly efficient. They are highly trained and compensated well, and it shows. MWC’s processes for managing their huge quantities of inventory and a heavy stream of customers are efficient and consistently executed well. As an example, last weekend, we went to MWC specifically to pick up some items we needed, and on the way, I pulled up their mobile app to see if there were any interesting item specials. Sure enough, there was a great deal on an item I’ve wanted to buy, so we added it to our list. Except as we waded through the aisles and shoppers (with strategic stops at the food samples), we could not find this item. It wasn’t in its usual place, nor did we see it towards the front entrance or on an end cap, where MWC advertised deals are often placed. (In an ideal world, I would have ordered the item from my mobile app and it would be waiting for us at checkout, but MWC isn’t there yet – it’s ok. I can wait.)

We sadly made our way to the checkout line, and when we got there, the sales associate who was helping take items off shoppers’ carts and place them onto the belt asked us if we had found everything we wanted. I told her no, and explained that we couldn’t find the item I had seen on the mobile app. Without hesitation, she said “I know I saw it somewhere, let me find it for you,” and before I could change my mind, she was off. Mind you – we had items already on the belt and the cashier was just about to begin our transaction. I took off after this ambitious sales associate, who, on the way, engaged another sales associate about the item (all without stopping on her beeline to where she thought the item would be). In less than a minute, our small caravan of three (the now two sales associates and me) had maneuvered through the busy checkout area, located the item, and they were almost arguing (in a friendly way) about which one of them would carry it back to the line for me. And joking about who found the product first. Within 2 minutes, I was back in line – in our original spot – with the newly found item plus our other selections rung up, paid for and back in our cart – with no slowdown in service to that particular checkout line.

It was an amazing display of customer service. My loyalty to MWC deepened.

Compare that with a typical online shopping trip. Yes, we can use search terms and usually find things with ease. Yes, checkout is often pretty easy. Yes, it’s amazing that they know what items go perfectly together or can tell me what other shoppers bought based on my shopping cart. And yes, we all love that most cross-channel merchants are offering different fulfillment methods. But who’s going to be your advocate for that retailer? Who’s going to make sure your experience is top notch on a personal level? And possibly most important, how are you going to be able to sample those amazing Angus cheeseburgers on a Saturday at an online merchant?

I am by no means devaluing online shopping. Without a doubt it is a necessity, relevant and quite often even enjoyable. Online shopping has forever changed retailing as we know it, and I believe it will continue to evolve in the next few years. However, there is a social and psychological need in most people for the personal, physical shopping experience. Those retailers who are focusing on ensuring fantastic customer experiences in their brick-and-mortar channels while successfully integrating all of their channels will be well positioned to thrive.

The Parker Avery Group is conducting a research study to understand exactly this dynamic: how channel integration has impacted store operations. We are exploring changes to staffing, scheduling, inventory, store layout and other elements that impact the physical shopping experience. We are welcoming retailers to participate in this survey and value your time and perspective. All respondent information will be kept anonymous. If you would like to participate, please visit http://parkeravery.com/survey.html. The study closes on October 31.

Shop on.

– Tricia