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The news on the brick-and-mortar front continues to trend toward the ominous, with retail shedding what amounts to an entire industrial sector’s worth of jobs since last October and quarterly earnings continuing to drop.

But is there a recent historical precedent that might serve as an analog for brick-and-mortar retail, another sector that faced a digital onslaught but came out the other side and appears to be surviving just fine, possibly even thriving?

Sears continues to shutter stores; analysts are anxiously awaiting Wal-Mart’s first quarter earnings report tomorrow; and despite its better-than-expected results, Target’s in-store sales still slipped in the first quarter, with its CEO today calling traffic “challenging.”

And, according to The New York Times, around 89,000 Americans have been laid off from general merchandise store jobs — more people than work in America’s flagging coal industry, the Times said.

This news, of course, is bigger than just retail; the sector employs one out of every 10 American workers, so this is a concern that clearly could have a greater ripple effect on the nation at large.

But all the news isn’t completely dire. In fact, everything above — and all the fears about brick and mortar in general — are a little confusing when held up against one other statistic mentioned in another New York Times article:

In the last three months of 2016, Americans spent $102.7 billion in online sales, which was 8.3 percent of the overall $1.24 trillion (emphasis mine) in retail sales.

So, unless I’m missing something here, 8.3 percent of retails sales were online, which of course means that a whopping 91.7 percent of retail sales still are taking place in brick-and-mortar stores. That seems like it should be pretty good news to me, and it rather begs the question where all that money is going if stores are laying off so many people.

At any rate, all the sturm and drang about brick-and-mortar retail brings to mind another time not too long ago when just as much ink was being spilled over the impending, coming-any-day-now death of the printed book.

And while, yes, the jury is still out on the long-term future of the printed book, and it may not return a verdict for another few decades, there is ample evidence that printed books are doing quite well, thank you very much.

There are statistics galore that paint a pretty picture for printed books — and there are certainly analysts who say those statistics are misleading at best — there are two recent items as it were that I think are particularly instructive for retail right now. One of them in particular should, or at least could, be taken as a significant portent for both printed books and brick-and-mortar retail.

First, though, the numbers do seem to suggest that e-book sales are leveling off, and that printed books continue to make up the overwhelming majority of book sales. Some reports estimate double-digit growth in Amazon’s sales of printed books, and a Pew Research Center study suggests that more than twice as many Americans have read a print book in the last year than have read an e-book (65 percent to 28 percent).

Perhaps even more interestingly, some observers are noticing a trend toward so-called “beautiful books” as publishers have begun upping their game and producing more desirable physical books and booksellers have been focusing on the experience of the book and the book purchase itself.

And finally, there hangs over everything this question: If the bete noire of the Amazon Goliath is looming over both printed books and brick-and-mortar retail … why is Amazon opening brick-and-mortar retail bookstores?

Is Amazon just trying to squeeze every nickel out of the market while brick and mortar and print are still viable? That’s entirely possible. But perhaps it’s just realizing that despite everything it does in terms of convenience and price-cutting, at least for the foreseeable immediate future, brick and mortar and print are still most of the market, and where most of the money is?

One final lesson, I think, can be taken from all of this, and it’s one that hits close to home for the Association and its members:

Why are books still selling so well, if e-books are so much more convenient and easy? I don’t even bother with an actual Kindle; I just read them on my phone or my tablet — and just about everyone has a smartphone they can’t live without these days.

It’s because of the experience of reading a printed book. The experience of enjoying and consuming a book is far more than just reading the words on the page, perhaps. The experience that draws in readers and book lovers is the tactile feel of a book, the smell of the paper and the binding, the ability to share that physical object with a friend or loved one so they can enjoy it as well. As wonderful as e-books are (and I read my fair share of both kinds of books), they simply cannot match the experience of their physical counterparts. The same, obviously, can be said about retail.

No matter how inexpensive and how seamless the e-commerce experience may be (and we consider that a part of the interactive customer experience just as we do the physical in-store experience), it’s got miles to go before it can compete with the simple joy of going to a store, picking out something to buy and bringing it home.

But retail cannot rest on its laurels, or on its 91.7 percent of sales, because the audience and the competition both are evolving and adapting faster at this point than they are. It will be the brick-and-mortar stores that do the most to create the best experiences for their customers that will survive the ongoing transformation of the market.

The “beautiful books” phenomenon is a key one for physical retail to keep in mind. Retailers should create their own “beautiful book” experience inside the walls of their stores. Those with the kind of experience, the kind of curated blend of physical and digital experiences in the store that simply cannot be replicated online, will continue to have a place and will continue to hold onto market share, even as e-commerce continues to grow. Just ask Amazon.

(Cover image courtesy of iStock.)
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