A world without brick-and-mortar stores? Even avid online shoppers say, ‘no, thanks’

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It has been dubbed the “retail apocalypse” –the widespread shuttering of brick-and-mortar stores in the wake of online shopping’s skyrocketing popularity. But how do consumers feel about this changing retail landscape?

As the launch of the holiday shopping season looms, a new study examined consumers’ perceptions of today’s changing retail environment and found something unexpected.

A team of researchers decided to find out in a study published in the Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services.

What the researchers say: They surveyed nearly 400 consumers about their shopping habits and perceptions of today’s retail environment. While shoppers were largely split on whether they preferred doing their shopping online versus in person, most agreed on one thing: If physical stores were to disappear completely, it would have negative consequences for society, such as lost jobs, fewer opportunities for social interaction and perhaps even an increase in certain types of crime.

From 2016 to 2017, store closures in the U.S. more than tripled to about 7,000. While the rise of online shopping isn’t entirely to blame, it’s certainly a major factor with e-commerce sales increasing 101 percent between 2011 and 2016. Consumers recognize this, and they see themselves as the ones driving change in retail, the researchers found.

“We set out to figure out how consumers perceive and make sense of this change, and what they anticipate for the future—for themselves and for society—if this retail change is persistent,” said the lead author.

To find out how consumers feel about the way retail is changing, the team first analyzed more than 1,600 comments made on online news articles written about store closures or the evolving retail environment. They then went a step further by conducting an online survey, in which they asked a different group of people a variety of open-ended questions about their shopping preferences and perceptions.

Respondents who preferred online shopping cited many of the expected reasons: It’s fast, convenient and offers a wide variety of options. For some older people and those with certain disabilities or mobility challenges, online shopping was the only way to make purchases. And some people even said they like online shopping because it allows them to avoid interacting with people.

Those who favored shopping in stores said they like the tactile experience. They want to be able to touch and handle products—especially clothing and food—before they buy them. Many also described going to the store as a pleasant social experience that they share with family and friends, and some, unlike their online shopping counterparts, said they enjoy interacting with strangers. Others even said that shopping was important to their physical health, as it was their primary form of exercise.

However, regardless of personal shopping preferences, when participants were asked to imagine a world entirely devoid of physical stores, most said it would be bad for society.

“The majority said this would be terrible,” the lead author said. “There’s a sense that brick-and-mortar stores are part of the social fabric of our society. If they disappear, many are concerned about the economy and what this will do for jobs and revenue for communities. Many people also said stores were vital to their quality of life. There are also fears that come from the closure of store spaces: What happens with all that empty space? Is crime going to increase because now we have all these empty areas? Crime rate was also a concern with regard to increased online shopping: Are there going to be more home invasions because there are all these packages on door fronts?”

Many also expressed concerns that people’s social skills might worsen in a world devoid of face-to-face interactions in stores,” she added.

So, what? One of the biggest causes of physical and mental ill-health is the increasing loneliness and isolation that people feel. We increasingly communicate digitally, which makes us more depressed and more prone to heart disease. Now lack of the social experience of shopping is adding to the problem.

We forget that humans are social animals. So many studies, including one published this week, have shown that when we are cut off from face-to-face communication our system prepares us for death—and in the US and elsewhere longevity is decreasing. In-store shopping is not just about buying stuff, it’s a vital social experience which, if lost, will do us immeasurable harm.