Early Investing

Customization and the Future of Retail

Customization and the Future of Retail
By Allison Brickell
Date December 8, 2021

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I traveled to Pennsylvania to visit family. Thanksgiving dinner — filled with plenty of pie, of course — was delicious. And the next day (Black Friday) I took a leisurely stroll through the local Boscov’s. 

Now, I typically don’t pay too much attention to Black Friday hype. I loathe getting up early and have zero interest in fighting through hordes of people to get my hands on something I don’t really need. But I do go shopping on Black Friday from time to time. I check out stores late in the day, after the frantic crowds have dispersed. And I do my best to find something that’s a genuinely good deal — and not just cheap. 

That’s what brought me to Boscov’s. 

Boscov’s is the only store I can recall having a strong presence throughout my childhood. I have fond memories of going to the department store with my mother and getting lost among the dizzying number of clothing racks. Wandering past the perfume counters, where floral scents and musky colognes wafted over me. Gazing at a counter full of chocolates and watching my father buy fancy truffles and chocolate-covered cherries for my mother for Christmas. 

The dull beige carpeting seemed to muffle the sounds of the store around me, enveloping me in an oddly peaceful quiet despite the store’s massive size. That sense of peacefulness contrasted strongly with the busyness of the mall in a way that I always found relaxing. 

And that’s still true today. At Boscov’s, I can take my time. And I always find insanely good sales. 

At the same time, Boscov’s is an exception to the rule for me. Like a growing number of people, I do most of my shopping online. I typically order clothes online rather than wander around a mall or a department store hoping to find something I like. 

This is because my tastes have changed over the years. I am now much more intentional about the clothes I purchase. I look for specific items for my wardrobe. And it’s much more efficient to type something into Google and get 15-plus results than it is to drive to a store where I might find one of those options. I also prioritize searching for more sustainable brands. And I’m not alone in that search for sustainability. 

Department stores typically aren’t as trend-savvy as newer brands. And they’re pretty far behind in terms of adopting more sustainable practices.

So Boscov’s is, in many ways, from a bygone era. Department stores across the U.S. have been struggling for more than a decade. They tend to carry legacy brands. And they tend to offer a limited array of products. 

New brands are capturing millennial and Gen Z customers online and through social media. And 62% of U.S. shoppers shop online more now than they did before the pandemic. Given e-commerce’s explosive growth even before the pandemic and COVID’s apparent staying power, that trend seems likely to continue.

Online retailers are also much better at customizing their products for customers. And more shoppers than ever want products tailored to their individual needs. They want customized streaming services, customized skin care products, customized grocery delivery. And small, agile startups are increasingly addressing that demand. 

That doesn’t necessarily mean that all brick-and-mortar retailers are doomed. In-store shopping still has its benefits — as I’ve found at Boscov’s. But it does raise a question for investors: What is the future of retail?

Will it continue to be a hybrid of brick-and-mortar and online commerce? Will we eventually shift to do all our shopping online? Will stores find other ways to make themselves useful to customers?

Every time I visit Boscov’s, I wonder about its future. Will it adapt to new trends? Will it survive as Amazon and other online retailers grow?

I can’t say. But I hope it does. Boscov’s doesn’t exactly offer a customized experience. But for me, it does offer a unique experience. I only visit Boscov’s maybe once a year. It’s not where I do most of my shopping.

But every once in a while, it’s like a blast from the past… and it hits the spot.

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