This past spring, Vancouver-based online eyewear retailer ClearlyContacts.ca opened its first bricks-and-mortar store in North America. CEO Roger Hardy is documenting the ins and outs of the process—from why he’s diversifying an established business, to what he’s learning about successful retail launches—in a regular series for PROFITguide.com.
Merchandising is an art. When done well, it can lure in clients and provide a satisfying, enjoyable, effective buying experience.
Until recently, all of ClearlyContacts.ca’s merchandise was only visible virtually. As an e-tailer, we had to make our website an easy, welcoming, intuitive space for customers to shop. Over time, we’ve designed a site that is simple, clean and clutter-free. It’s an aesthetic that has become part of our brand, and has worked remarkably well for us.
That’s all well and good in the digital world. But would it work in real life?
This was a big question as we prepared to open our first bricks-and-mortar store in Canada. We spent considerable time thinking about how to translate our online merchandising practices into a physical space. How could we give our store the same look and feel that’s been so successful on our site? More importantly, how could we ensure clients (both old and new) would leave our small store completely satisfied?
Online, successful merchandising involves two things: first, having the wherewithal to identify popular products, and second, photographing and describing those products in a way that appeals to the customer. You must focus sharply on what’s trending, and ensure that those items are easy for visitors to find. And because the customer cannot physically touch the product, the description and details are of paramount importance.
Inventory on our site is virtually unlimited; we can offer customers a dizzying array of options (we have more than 2,000 styles of glasses to choose from), and they can buy their selections instantly.
It’s simply not possible to offer that same variety in a 1,000-square-foot bricks-and-mortar store—at least, not using traditional methods. To offer customers an in-person experience that rivals our website, we’d have to get creative.
That’s why we hired an experienced store merchandiser, and paired her up with one of our seasoned web merchandisers. Together, the pair came up with a model that I think combines the best attributes of online and physical retail. Instead of treating the store as an offshoot of the site, we decided to design it to feed into our site activity, and vice-versa.
Because we simply don’t have room to carry all styles in the store, we have to be selective. So, we gather data about which SKUs are trending, based on our web traffic. By examining what people are browsing and purchasing, we can decide which items get prime display treatment on shelves and in the store’s front windows. The beauty of it is we can change things up based on what we know to be popular—no guesswork required.
And what about the stock we don’t have room for? We’ve installed interactive digital displays throughout the store that connect directly to our website. So, if visitors don’t find the perfect selection in-store, they’re able to browse our full inventory immediately and buy what they like, while they’re still engaged in the shopping experience.
It’s relatively easy for a company like ours to deploy such a hybrid merchandising model, given the extent of our e-tail presence. But it’s a model that any retailer with an e-commerce platform—or even just access to up-to-date data on buying patterns—could emulate, at least in part.
As you might guess, this hybrid model has attracted an interesting mix of customers. Our physical displays are getting a lot of people who’ve never purchased glasses online in the door. Many go on to purchase digitally for the first time right inside the store. On the other side, trendsetters who’ve been purchasing online for years appreciate the chance to interact with physical items.
This diversity in customer interactions is giving us great insight into what both new and existing consumers are looking for. What we learn is ultimately playing back into merchandising decisions for both channels: store and web.
Roger Hardy is the founder and CEO of ClearlyContacts.ca, Canada’s largest online retailer of contact lenses and eyeglasses.
Read more from Roger Hardy’s Expansion Diary:
- Yes, You Can Expand Without Destroying Your Culture
- The Art of Building Buzz
- 3 Lessons From Real-Estate Limbo
- Prepping for a Perfect Store Opening
- Why Go Bricks-and-Mortar When the Web is Booming?