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Brick-and-mortar stores struggle to stay relevant in the digital age.
In today’s digital age, a triathlete can purchase everything from swim caps to recovery nutrition from the comfort of their couch. A new pair of running shoes can appear on one’s doorstep with just one click, and digital shelves offer options beyond what can be found at local retailers.
It’s a good time to be a consumer—and a challenging time to be a local retailer.
Marketing research conducted by Milwaukee agency Hansen Dodge Creative assessed the shopping habits of more than 25,000 consumers nationwide, finding that cycling-oriented consumers were twice as likely as the average consumer to make purchases for their hobby online. Research on runners and active women have yielded similar results as well.
“We have found that, in general, consumers that live an active lifestyle are more likely than the average consumer to engage with brands and shop or buy digitally,” says Logan Macomber of Hansen Dodge Creative.
This new online landscape may account for the vast decline in brick-and-mortar stores available to endurance athletes. According to the National Bicycle Dealers Association 2015 Industry Overview, the number of bike shops in the United States has declined more than 40 percent in the last 15 years; a similar report on the running industry shows online sales outpace sales at specialty running shops. A Triathlon Business International study revealed half of triathlon purchases were made online.
Triathlon’s inclination towards online shopping is not entirely surprising. For one, triathlon shops are few and far between, especially in smaller markets and rural areas. Even in specialty bike and running shops with a stock of triathlon gear, selection can be limited, pushing consumers online. Triathletes are also more likely to actively seek out innovative developments for an edge in speed and efficiency, and such products (especially if one wants “first dibs”) are more likely to be found on a website than in stores.
Manufacturers themselves see a benefit in online sales as well: through direct sales, brands can offer their wares for significantly lower cost. Several bike manufacturers, including Canyon, Trek and Giant, have begun offering e-retail options which allow their product to bypass the showroom floor (and subsequent retailer markups). For a cost-conscious consumer, the savings is often too big to pass up.
For brick-and-mortar retailers, the message is clear: Evolve or die.
“Brands and retailers have an opportunity to provide an incredible omnichannel experience for consumers,” says Macomber. “All of the research we see suggests that more than 80% of consumers start their path to purchase online, but 69% of consumers still use physical stores for information during different phases of the purchase process, regardless of where they buy.”
This process, known as “showrooming,” is a critical opportunity for retailers to get—and keep—customers, says Stefanie Peterson of TriSports.com, which has found success in both digital and traditional sales.
“You can’t win the commodity price war, but you can provide exceptional customer service to attract a return customer. Offer additional incentives and provide greater value for customers, such as free bike safety inspections, host a class, organize a ride from your shop and participate in the community.”
Local shops have one major advantage websites don’t: human interaction. Though online retailers can offer customer support, they can’t provide hands-on instruction on how to change a flat, nor can they put a broken bike on a stand for a quick adjustment.
“Consumers are shopping online but converting in stores,” Macomber advises local retailers, “Be prepared to offer them a great experience and engage them when they come into the store, as they are already likely in buying mode. Focus on immediacy, maintenance, and service which are difficult to deliver and perfect online.”
In-person retailers should also step up their digital game to compete with online retailers. The Hansen Dodge Creative study found bicycle consumers are 56% more likely to value social media in the path to purchase, be it online reviews of a local shop or simply enjoying a brand’s marketing strategy on Twitter or Instagram.
Peterson says social media is at the forefront of her company’s success: when people have a good experience with TriSports.com, whether online or at their Tucson store, they talk about it: “Third party reviews such as Yelp are powerful in assisting sales conversions. You can bet that before a customer purchases from a company for the first time, they are reviewing all the digital platforms to form a first impression of the company; can I trust this company, do they put the customer first, and so on.”
It’s also important to help the consumer feel connected with the store through social media. “Don’t open a social media account and then wait for your customers to provide the content,” advises Peterson. “Shops need to drive the content and keep it fresh and unique.” By posting information about new products as well as the human elements of the sport—social gatherings, charity partnerships, customer success stories and local race participation are all ways customers invest in their connection with a local shop, which translates to loyalty and sales.
“The retail landscape is drastically evolving as consumers change the way they shop and how they engage with brands,” says Peterson. “Companies need to embrace and adapt to this changing environment. Connect with the consumer, get creative and organize ways to serve their needs.”