With e-commerce sales in Canada expected to hit almost $30-billion this year, there's no doubt that online retail is growing quickly. But many retailers who got their start online are going in a different direction: They're opening bricks-and-mortar stores.
Vancouver-based Indochino, which sells custom menswear, started experimenting with offline stores in 2011, four years after it launched online.
"It was a big leap for us at the time," said Kyle Vucko, the company's CEO and co-founder. "We were bucking the trend."
He said the move into the physical world was driven by customers who wanted to see and feel fabrics as well as get advice from stylists.
"We were hearing from enough of our customers that they wanted this level of service," he said.
The company now has showrooms in Toronto and Vancouver as well as New York, San Francisco and Philadelphia. A Boston location is scheduled to open on July 23, with three more expected before the end of the year.
Mr. Vucko said certain products are just better suited to online sales – things such as books and electronics, whose specifications can easily be described to consumers.
"Apparel hasn't moved online as quickly as other categories," he said.
While a customer who is used to buying a specific pair of jeans or shoes might look online, new brands have a tougher time, he said, because customers don't know how a product will fit.
His approach is what's often called an omnichannel strategy, using web, mobile and physical retail in a unified way to reach customers.
But not all onmichannel approaches look the same.
For Roy Hessel, the CEO of Vancouver's Clearly (formerly ClearlyContacts.ca), which sells vision-correction products, his strategy is "digital first."
"When we talk about omnichannel, I think that we should look at it much more broadly than just the tension between website, mobile and the physical store," Mr. Hessel said. "When I look at it, as a CEO of a mainly digital company, I look at it as a multidimensional approach."
A big part of that for him is the ability to reach customers around the world. Clearly launched as an online retailer in 2000. It expanded into bricks and mortar in 2013 and currently has two stores in Vancouver and one in Toronto.
"We see our retail stores as learning labs," Mr. Hessel said. They give the company an opportunity to test things, gather feedback and learn about how people shop for glasses.
"The biggest challenge that eyeglasses customers have is finding the right fit," he said. Because they have to take their glasses off to try on new frames, "they always need the feedback of a friend or a professional."
He said customers now often use their cellphones as part of the process – taking selfies to see what they look like when they're trying on frames. That insight has influenced both a virtual try-on feature and the introduction of monitors in stores, which allow customers to see how they look in different frames once they've put their glasses back on.
While he said customer research has been "priceless," he doesn't have any plans to open more bricks-and-mortar stores.
For him, it all comes down to the size of the market. He said his goal is to reach one billion customers by 2030, something that would be extremely difficult in physical retail. "I'd have to open tens of thousands of stores."
Even with the massive growth in online sales, e-commerce still makes up a small percentage of all retail sales in Canada. Offline retail is worth about $40-billion a month, according to Statistics Canada. That's more business than online retailers do in an entire year.
But for individual retailers, those two streams aren't necessarily in competition.
Chris Naidu said he's seen a big boost to his business since opening a bricks-and-mortar store in late June.
He's the co-owner of Park & Province, a Toronto-based boutique that sells men's clothing and accessories.
While he said most of the sales he's generated over the past couple of weeks have been in-store, they have not taken away from the online store, which opened a little less than two years ago.
"Our online sales have risen since we opened," he said.
He sees the two channels driving traffic to each other. Customers might browse online and come in later to try something on. Or they might see something in-store and decide to buy it when they get home.
For Mr. Naidu, the physical store isn't just about driving sales in the short term, it's also about building relationships with customers and creating an esthetic for his brand.
"That traditional aspect of being able to introduce somebody into your own space and creating this environment for them – that will never go away," he said. "I think that's definitely the most important aspect to why we opened the store … for reasons like that, in person is always better."
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