As stores across the country begin to reopen, senior consumer insights analyst at Digital Commerce 360 Lauren Freedman tests in-store shopping, curbside pickup and returns at some of her favorite stores.

Don’t get me wrong—I love shopping online. But I need a store shopping fix. And I’m not alone. American Eagle Outfitters Inc. reported a wider-than-expected first-quarter loss as the pandemic took its toll on specialty retail. Their liquidation was even more aggressive than usual online. Nonetheless, optimism was sounded as stores began to open. On the retailer’s earnings call, chief financial officer Mike Mathias said “We think we are getting more than our fair share of pent-up demand. Clearly, we’re the strongest store in the mall, and our customers are continuing to come to us.” As stores across the country begin to reopen, sales are averaging about 95% of their normal levels.

I was looking forward to making a trip to American Eagle’s Water Tower Place store to stock up on summer clothing for my high school graduate. (And to slip in a return.) I’m also happy to report that I made my first visit to my favorite outdoor mall Old Orchard in the Chicago suburbs to touch and feel the goods last week, which inspired this post.

Digital Commerce 360 in conjunction with Bizrate Insights recently asked 1,000 online shoppers about why they go to physical stores. I decided to see how I stacked up with our survey respondents.

Out of the 14 reasons, I scored all but four a yes. The no’s included the website experience doesn’t adequately represent the retailer/ brand, attending an event, am not satisfied with online customer service and received a mobile text near the store. Otherwise, I’m a bonafide store shopper with a mix of online savvy.

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 Revisiting the Mall

On the afternoon of June 17, I returned to Water Tower Place. I didn’t count more than 20 people in the entire mail. Inside American Eagle Outfitters, I would say there were five shoppers, three of whom were waiting in line to cash out.

Upon entering the backside of the mall, we were greeted with signage that shared their safety precautions. The mall visit reinforced that we are all in this together. Hours of operation and a link to the website were prominent.

Retailers like Lacoste shared the innovations it has put in place during the pandemic to foster sales. One would have to conclude that, if there’s a will, there’s a way.

What Matters Most to Me

Selfishly, I had an agenda and here’s how I would prioritize those survey responses from a personal perspective.

  1. I’m tired of returning

The thing that has kept me from ordering more online is the inconvenience of being able to return products. The bags of graduation dresses that awaited return trips to their stores was growing. After waiting up to 6-8 weeks for retailers to receive credit on orders returned by mail, I’m not taking any chances. My first store trip was to Nordstrom. I wasn’t alone in the store on their opening day at Old Orchard. Several people were in line ahead of me.

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A day later, Bloomingdales was more challenging as they have no designated service counter to accommodate returns. I had to escalate through the store and could barely find an associate to process the order. A quick view of the mall suggested no visitors, as I saw less than 10 people in the store on a weekday afternoon.

  1. Picking up online orders

It’s graduation season and my daughter is a high school senior. Even though the celebrations are virtual, we will be joining our best friends, and I wanted to bring a gift. I didn’t want to go the gift certificate route. Stores are closed still for the pandemic and now many for protests. I had researched my jewelry purchase online and noticed that Kendra Scott was offering curbside pickup. With my promotion code in hand, I searched for stores that were extending that service and found one at a mall 20 minutes away and seized the moment. The entire parking lot, was almost empty but smartly set up for curbside orders. I followed the directions from the retailer, texted and got no response. So after two tries, I called and within 5 minutes, the associate was on the way to the car.

  1. Want to be out shopping with my family

I realize now that I forgot this important answer in the survey. Even my daughter shared that she missed shopping—I have trained her well. The waiting time may ultimately be the biggest challenge. Stores with small footprints may be challenged more than their larger counterparts in this regard. Several times I’ve walked by Athleta in the mall and in my neighborhood as associates with clipboards were poised to take my name. I love to shop but am not waiting in line.

 

  1. Support local retailers/small businesses

I’m ready and just waiting for my favorite stores to reopen. They are particularly struggling now and make it hard for me, while others push ahead with curbside pickup. Like 32% of those surveyed, I want to go the extra mile to shop local. Lori’s, The Sole of Chicago, is a neighborhood fixture, and it let me know the store was ready for business.

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  1. Want to try on the products

A few weeks ago, I was invited to social distance with a friend. I wanted something new. I went to Target knowing they were open and can usually fulfill that need. As I walked to the dressing rooms, they were closed, so I had to take my chances. What seemed so normal just a few months ago was now an obstacle in making the purchase. This same dilemma would become challenging in all stores, likely forcing shoppers like me to make multiple trips to the store, should products and in particular sizing not work out. I falsely assumed this to be the case at American Eagle Outfitters, so my daughter didn’t even think about trying it on. I regretted that decision as I was now making that same trip once again. Perhaps it’s my way to keep shopping.

  1. Want to get a full sense of the brand experience

More than anything, I want to be in the store. I want to see the assortments, the merchandising of the product and just to have a look around. Anthropologie accomplishes this for me. While I don’t always purchase on sale, I rarely splurge for an expensive item. This time, I justified it as a post-coronavirus indulgence, returning the next day as I couldn’t locate the item online.

  1. Interaction with the store associates

I love the banter and forgot how much I enjoy it. I did a curbside pickup at Bloomingdales Memorial Day weekend. As the associate brought the products to my car, I inquired about how many orders she was fulfilling each day (about eight per hour). She shared that she’d been furloughed for 8 weeks after only expecting to be away for a few weeks. Beyond the store associates are the friends and family encounters. As big as Chicago can be, it always seems small when shopping. Our Sunday shop resulted in running into my nephew and his wife, and she was happy to share her sale rack find.

At American Eagle Outfitters, our sales associate was mostly a cashier. We worked together to process the return, which went to a special receptacle. She handled the remainder of the transaction, and I would have to say it was a bit clinical given what we knew from past AEO visits. We’ll get there.

I’m going to take my chances as the risk seems minimal. Armed with my mask and my credit card, I’m poised to shop. I am ready for the interactions and the buzz of the store, and I’m happy to try on my selections. I’ll continue to take advantage of both picking up and returning in store. I need both the web and store to fulfill my shopping needs effectively and emotionally. I’m ready to peruse the store, and I know the stores will be happy to see me, once I finish processing all of the returns.

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