5 Ways Brick-And-Mortar Businesses Can Compete in the Digital Age

11/30/2016 05:30 pm ET Updated Dec 01, 2017

With disrupters Amazon, Airbnb and Uber changing the way we shop, vacation and get around, competing in the digital age can be a fairly daunting prospect--especially for brick-and-mortar (B&M) companies.

In what the World Economic Forum dubs the 'fourth industrial revolution,' traditional roles and industries are being shaken up around the globe, from San Francisco to Singapore. Online shopping portals are extending their tentacles further and further into all aspects of consumers' lives. So it's hardly surprising that many main street sellers are struggling to compete.

With Amazon's aggressive one-hour service, B&M merchants are feeling the heat, but instead of deciding they can no longer compete, they should fully utilize some tricks they still have up their sleeves.

"While B&M retail outlets cannot match Amazon in some ways, Amazon cannot offer the same customer experience that local retailers can," proclaims Patrick Spear, President and CEO of GMDC, an association for retailers, wholesalers and suppliers.

Here are 5 ways in which the traditional retail ecosystem can fight back in the digital age:

1. Meld online with in-store shopping. Many savvy retailers, including industry giant Target, offer a mixture of online and in-store shopping. Busy consumers can preorder their products online and collect them from their local store, which pulls them off the shelves in advance of the pickup. Many customers prefer this option because they have access to instant assistance and can return an unsuitable purchase easily.

2. Add a digital experience to the physical one. Fusing a digital and physical experience could be the way forward for many retailers. Average retailers may not have the budget to go all out and seek a patent for a self-driving shopping cart like Walmart, but they can still factor in digital elements to their customer experience. This may include flat screen TVs or gaming areas, self-check-out cash registers, price-finding devices, customer reviews, or promotions. The smartest brands are learning to harness digital media to insert some tech fun into the shopping experience.

3. In-store personalization. Personalization is fairly easy and commonplace for online shoppers. Previous purchases, site visits, payment details and preferences are all automatically saved. The shopping experience is faster and more personalized with specific products selected for the consumer. This can be hard to replicate in a physical store.

Recognizing the wake-up call from Amazon and its Prime Now service, many stores are opting for in-store personalization partnering with companies like eyeQ. Retailers can pick and choose from services such as face recognition and storing customers' shopping preferences. They can target their messages to consumers as they enter the store through demographics like gender and age, and offer guides on digital screens to help consumers find their way around.

4. Create an authentic shopping experience. The word 'authentic' is used so much these days that it's starting to lose its authenticity. Millennials are becoming more demanding when it comes to just about everything. And why wouldn't they be? When your car can park itself and you can program your refrigerator from your smartphone, why put up with a mediocre experience in a store? Online competitors are fighting successfully for sales dollars 24/7.

Create an authentic shopping experience by playing relaxing music and treating each customer like a VIP. Offer them coffee and WIFI access, and provide child minding services or a play area in-store. According to Smart Insights, immersive experiences help customers feel more engaged and can increase the average purchase amount by as much as 29.5 percent.

5. Unite with fellow retailers. While that elephant in the room no one wants to talk about continues to force retailers to step up their game, why not unite with your peers? It makes sense to lean on the support of an organization created with the goal of helping their members grow.

The GMDC (Global Market Development Center) unites suppliers and retailers through an invaluable network of buyers and sellers. Suppliers can secure more shelf space and retailers can get access to new products, as well as continued education and collaboration.

Above all, in the digital age, retailers need to remember this: you have the critical location advantage over Amazon. You will always be closer to the buyer than Amazon, and you can more easily bridge the last mile to ensure customer satisfaction. If that means blurring the lines between the online and in-store experience, so be it.