The world of retail is in a serious crisis. In Soho, New York, I recently counted 37 empty storefronts in an area of just a few blocks. Mid-America is in an even more dire situation since the advent of mega-chains like Sears, Macy’s and Kmart closing entire malls; turning buildings into ghosts of the past and taking with them increasingly large handfuls of small boutiques, independent coffee shops, and family-run businesses.

The US has always had a much larger number of stores per capita than any other industrialized country. We have twice as many as Australia and almost 5 times the amount of the UK (as per a 2015 PwC data survey). A decline was expected to happen but the specific geography of the US cannot be compared to other countries and the real reasons lie elsewhere.

Though there are many, to find one overarching explanation for this shift, we can just look towards the device in our hands. In other words – the internet.

Amazon is set to reach 50% of the entire online market by 2020, followed distantly by eBay and Apple at a mere 6.6% and 3.9% respectively. In 2018, the e-commerce penetration in the US rose to 14.3% as opposed to its initial 5% in 2007. It is set to increase by at the same rate, if not more, in the years to come. (This percentage seems low but in the total retail sales are categories that will unlikely go online: items such as vehicle gasoline, motor vehicle replacement parts, food, restaurants, bars, etc.)

Though it may not seem like it, the reality is much more complex than the public simply no longer shopping in stores anymore. In this guide, we will not only deep-dive into this seismic retail shift, we will also suggest ways through which you can adapt to the change, and eventually, take advantage of it.

Up until just a few years ago, every client we met was complaining about the internet stealing their market. A common sentiment went along the lines of: “people don’t buy here anymore because they find the same product online at a cheaper price.” This was especially an issue for big brands.

Best Buys, for example, often had customers coming in-store to browse and inspect products, but then leaving and ordering them online via Amazon or Walmart. The CEO endeavored to combat it by launching a price-match guarantee, as well as strengthening customer relations. They did this by expanding their ‘Geek Squad’ program which helps customers with tech problems and developing their ‘In-Home Advisor’ program that gives 1.5hr free advice for customers on any electronic product, without any pressure to purchase. By ensuring that customers are treated like individuals and not just numbers in a database, Best Buys have been successfully growing.

Competing with an online business if you are a physical store is an uphill battle. Unlike your store, a website doesn’t have to pay for high rent, cleaning, security, utilities; let alone prime locations. But if you stop viewing the two channels as two totally separate entities, you then realize that there is much more that you can offer and this is why there are many retailers that were previously only online are now opening stores or showrooms (to name a few; Warby Parker, James Allen, Harry’s, and Amazon).

As businesses like this experiment with opening physical stores in various cities, they find that their online business is larger than in the cities that do not have a physical store.

It makes sense – you might have brilliant and innovative ways for customers to try or preview products digitally via photos or virtual reality effects, but it will never be the same as feeling, touching and trying on items in a physical space. And it will never be the same as interacting with an IRL human (i.e. retail assistant) smiling, taking your coat, and suggesting jeans of a perfect fit just for you.

A store is no longer a place where you sell a product, it is a ‘brand activation’ point. Sales may happen online but the customer’s interaction with the brand needs to happen on a physical level if we want to convey real emotions. It is the irreplaceable physicality of experience, as well as the convenience of the digital world, that will allow the next generation of retailers to thrive.

Keep reading, and we’ll guide you through how to achieve just that.


Andy Warhol once said that “You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking.” In other words, a Coke is the same regardless of when, where and by whom it is consumed. At the time Warhol said that, the world was a place where every product needed to be suited to a large portion of the population – if not all. We could have almost said that everyone likes Coke and that’s what made it what it is today.

In the digital age this is no longer true. We can create products for a very specific niche of the population and still be successful. In fact – we need to create products for a very specific niche. This is because, unlike at the time of Warhol, we can now find and target that niche with extreme precision.

Think of hair products, for example: we all have a different hair type as a result of our genes and today we can find a product that works specifically for us. Regardless of whether you have curly hair, thin hair, thick hair, coiled hair – you will find something, because there is something made for every single niche.

In the food industry we can find a specific type of potato chips that are the exact right flavour that we’re looking for ; chips which have the right amount of salt, the right amount of crispiness, the right shape – just for us. Thousands of products are now designed for a small category of people, not designed to serve every person in the country.

This is great news for retailers! It means that you can now find your exact customers and design your products specifically for them.

The same thinking is valid if you have a store, but are not necessarily designing and producing your products. You can find a niche and sell only to that niche – but you need to become the best at it. You could be selling rock and roll leather jackets, astronomy or astrophotography books, video games or role playing toys.

Regardless of what you’re selling, you need to become extremely knowledgeable in that category and sell only that; so that when people come to your store or website, you know exactly what to tell the customer. You’ve curated the selection, and have a knowledge of the product that can’t be found easily online. You’ve found your niche. A customer comes in to see what you have on display, and will want to talk to you, because you are the one who knows the field, through and through.

Good retail destinations (and websites) are becoming more like museums, where going to a store is an educational and engaging experience. The salesperson should be extremely knowledgeable.

The salesperson or shop assistant should also have excellent curatorial skills. One of the first things Steve Jobs did upon his return to Apple in 1997 was to remove most of their products. He left just three or four; one entry-level computer, one desktop, one phone and one iPod. Being so heavily curated, this groundbreaking approach meant that Apple employees could be incredibly knowledgeable about their products and spend more time perfecting them.

Additionally, having a more curated store with fewer products makes it not only easier for salespeople to be knowledgeable about what they’re selling, but also easier for customers to select something because they are not overwhelmed by choice. Research a category of product on Amazon and see how many results you get – it’s nearly always too much to choose from. The paradox of choice means that it is harder to decide purely because there are too many choices. So take a page from Apple’s book and curate, cut down and learn everything there is to learn about your products.

If you are seeking assistance with implementing the changes necessary to thrive today, visit

Sergio Mannino Studio is a creative agency helping innovative brands to succeed through Design in a fast-changing world.

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