November 24, 2023
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E-commerce forcing retailers to reconnect with customers


Far from driving retailers out of business, e-commerce is reinventing the way they connect with their customers.

Panelists at the MIT Enterprise Forum of the Central Coast gave a diverse set of perspectives Sept. 20, looking at solutions for the struggling retail market, mostly centered around getting to know customers, providing a sense of place and community, and converting in-store customers into online sales.

Gordon Seabury, CEO of Santa Barbara-based Toad&Co, outlined a concept store the company opened 10 years ago called the Lizard Lounge that combined music, an art gallery, a coffee shop, a bar and a space for charitable events, and incorporated products that complemented Toad&Co’s brand.

Kloe Colacarro, who’s in charge of leasing for Los Angeles real estate company Caruso, highlighted brands that were born online like Snapchat and Warby Parker that had opened new brick-and-mortar spaces to engage customers.

“Amazon is great for brick and mortar,” Colacarro said, adding that “It’s certainly not enough to have a great product. Those retailers that are thriving are providing unique experiences and environments and interacting with their consumers in a much more interesting and personal way.”

Exchange Collective founder Dave Pankratz said that a street address can help separate an online brand from its competition and give it a shop-local feeling. They both said that Amazon’s data-driven approach helped shift the industry toward getting to know its customers.

“Retailers need to take advantage of the experience they’ve already created,” he said. “Without that retail experience for a brand, eventually they’re just an online brand where there’s a lot of noise.”

Enterprise Forum board member Steve Sereboff likened it to a trend seen in the music industry, which used to use live performances to promote album sales, but now releases an album to promote ticket sales after digital distribution drove down costs.

The issue has been an ongoing one for the city of Santa Barbara, especially in the downtown State Street corridor. Nina Johnson, senior assistant to the city administrator, outlined projects like a retail study, a smoke-free city program and new curbside pickup options that could help it transition from serving tourists to residents.

• Contact Marissa Nall at