The retail scene is in a sad state. But all is not lost if stores keep up with what customers really want
Believe it or not, but it was only in June this year that I tried online shopping.
For years, I had avoided shopping websites. I already spent too much time and money at brick-and-mortar shops. I didn't want to become addicted to online shopping, too.
So, while all around me, people were filling their virtual carts in sites from Asos to Zalora, I was unmoved.
Then came Brexit.
The pound plunged and I overheard a colleague raving about the savings that could be got from shopping at British-based sites or those that accept payment in pounds. His enthusiasm was infectious.
I went onto the fashion site Net-A-Porter - my colleague helpfully told me it was having a sale - and, oh my, prices had been slashed by up to 60 per cent.
I was amazed at the range of items available and the wealth of content. Each product came with photos and tips on how to wear it and suggestions on similar items I might also like to buy.
What have I been missing all these years? I was filled with regret.
After endless scrolling, I decided to buy a bag from Antik Batik, a French label. It's a multi-coloured cotton clutch embellished with beading and small, orange pom-poms. I loved its bohemian vibe.
With shipping, it cost about £84, and check-out was easy. Three days later, the bag arrived at my doorstep.
I opened the box with anticipation (it felt like Christmas), and there, inside, was my much-awaited bag.
My heart sank.
Oh dear, I thought, I hadn't expected it to be so big. It looked much daintier on the website.
And, hmm, the beading I was attracted to when I saw the bag on the computer screen? I hadn't realised it would make the bag so heavy. And those pom-poms which looked adorable in the photo? They looked rather silly now.
If I had seen the bag at a shop, I wouldn't have bought it.
The website has a return policy, but I couldn't muster the energy to go through the process.
I don't dislike the bag, but I doubt I'll have much use for it.
I've since signed on to other shopping sites, but I haven't bought anything else.
Online shopping, I've concluded, isn't for me for several reasons.
Something that looks amazing on a website might not be so wonderful when it's in front of me. As someone who works in the media, I should know that products can be made to look more appealing in photos through proper lighting, styling and editing.
I'm also not confident that products bought online will fit me. I need to try on stuff before I buy them. One could return items that don't fit, but that's a hassle.
I don't like the wait involved either. Even the quickest delivery option takes more than a day. The whole point of shopping is instant gratification and online shopping does not allow that.
It's also too easy to part with your money in digital transactions. I've probably saved a lot by not jumping on the e-commerce bandwagon.
Mostly, though, online shopping takes away the joy of shopping. Scrolling, clicking and enlarging images on a screen is too clinical and impersonal to qualify as shopping for me.
I love shopping. I love malls, shopping alleys, supermarkets, farmers' markets, discount warehouses, luxury shops, pasar malams, souks - any place where goods are laid out in all their glory for sale.
I love the whole experience of shopping - seeing, touching, rubbing, wearing, smelling, haggling sometimes, and the sense of ownership when the item is finally mine.
I don't even have to actually buy something. Just being in a shopping environment makes me happy.
In fact, there's such a thing as shopper's high, just as there's runner's high, that euphoria distance runners get.
Scientists have found that shopping does make some people feel good. It's been reported that when a person shops, the brain releases the chemical dopamine. Dopamine is linked to feelings of satisfaction and pleasure and is released when you face new, exciting experiences. In other words, the world of shopping.
There are a few malls in Singapore that I always go to. I still feel a frisson whenever I step through their doors even though I have been there hundreds of times.
The excitement shoots up when it's a new store. Last Sunday, I spent a thrilling hour at Uniqlo's new flagship at Orchard Central. It is still packing in the crowds.
Much of the retail scene, though, is in a slump. Competition from e-commerce, weak consumer spending and high business costs have hit retailers hard.
While there's not much they can do about the economic slowdown, there are things retailers can do to retain customers.
Retail needs a rethink, on two fronts. First, they should really not take customers for granted, and second, they should adapt the best practices of e-commerce.
In many shops, the basics are not even there, and by this I mean things like cleanliness and service.
For example, one big turn-off for me is a store with fingerprints all over its glass doors. It's disgusting - and it's the first thing a customer sees when he enters the shop. How difficult is it to make sure glass doors are regularly wiped?
There's also the matter of dressing rooms, which often seem like an afterthought.
Shoppers aren't looking for fancy boudoir-like dressing rooms. What we want is an area that is of a decent size, clean (stray hair, carpet stains and clumps of dirt are horrible), has good lighting and big mirrors, and which doesn't have an air-con blasting down at them.
Service is another perennial bugbear. It still veers between indifference and coming on heavy.
Shoppers also want more cashier counters, music that puts us in a good mood, stylish shopping bags we are proud to carry and a fuss-free return policy.
With so many people converted to online shopping, retailers should also adapt the best of e-commerce to their physical stores.
One feature of online shopping is ease of navigation. Websites are clearly divided into categories like What's New, Clothing, Shoes, etc. Could physical stores do with clearer organisation? Better signages ? Employees who really know where things are and who don't mind taking you to them?
Good websites also score high on curation. They might be selling you a sweater, but they don't just show photos of the sweater. The sweater is shown as part of an outfit, and not just one outfit, but several outfits.
Not only does this give you style ideas, it also propagates a more persuasive message - that the sweater is a good buy because it is versatile and you will be getting your money's worth.
Can stores adapt this concept? Space is a constraint, yes, but why not have a wall showing videos of how you can wear the clothes in different ways? Use technology to your advantage.
Another strong suit of e-commerce is ease of payment. Can retailers make it easier for people to check out ? Supermarkets have self-check outs. Can this be extended to fashion stores?
Retail won't die because many people love to shop. But retailers can work harder to bring back the joy of shopping to their stores.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 25, 2016, with the headline 'The joy of shopping'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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