Retail

A Far Offline Place

Pretty much every retailer is looking to thrive in omnichannel commerce. The expansion of technology continues to make consumers more informed, more versatile, more connected every day, and merchants are falling over each other to facilitate seamless integration of the phases of discovery, in-store shopping, online shopping and delivery.

The problem for those merchants is that they’re all going after the same people, and there’s only so much to go around.

The truly savvy retailer will realize this and go after the Amish.

No? That strategy seems problematic, given that Amish people are widely regarded as being anti-electricity, never mind somewhat infrequent in updating their Amazon apps on their iPhones?

First of all, that perception is off the mark. While it’s true that Amish people are, for the most part, less technologically inclined than the general public, their traditionalist Christian beliefs do not explicitly forbid them from adopting modern conveniences; more accurately, the precepts of the Amish fellowship encourage members to be highly selective in considering what technologies can fit into their lives — and their communities — without disrupting them.

One element of modern life that has passed this test among many Amish populations is the Internet.

The Philadelphia Inquirer shares the tale of one Sam Riehl, a 26-year-old Amish seeking to expand his family’s food market with — among other, seemingly “un-Amish” additions — the inclusion of online delivery.

“My generation is more advanced,” Riehl told the outlet. “We feel the Internet is really important to grow a business, and we have to do more on the Internet.”

The plain truth of the matter is that, as Barbara Khan, director of the Jay H. Baker Retailing Center at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, remarked to the Inquirer, “commerce is forcing even the Amish to adapt to the online retail world.”

While devout Amish and Mennonites may be stronger than other tradition-steeped communities in resisting cultural change due to social pressure, the “economic necessity” that Khan describes is a different story altogether.

It’s what motivates Amish furniture makers in Northeastern Pennsylvania, for example, who might otherwise lead lives of tightly knit seclusion, to hawk their wares through Simply Country and its (not Amish) owner, Lori Novjoski, who retails the goods to (not Amish) tourists from all over.

Novjoski shared her observation with the Times Leader, one assumes with a straight face, that networking with the Amish community can be difficult … but retail business can provide opportunities in unexpected places — particularly as traditional brick-and-mortar formats continue to lose ground to eCommerce.

Another retailer that specializes in handcrafted Amish furniture, Snyder’s, has existed as a physical store in the heart of Pennsylvania’s Amish Country, in a town called Intercourse (because of course it is and we don’t get what the big deal is for you about that and maybe you should be more mature), for 30 years. But what really drives its sales, according to the Inquirer, is Snyder’s online store that went live at the turn of the (current) century.

“For the most part, Amish craftsmen and retailers are adapting to the challenges of 21st-century businesses and looking for ways around their beliefs to adapt to changing technology,” Keith Horst, Snyder’s general manager, told the outlet. “They find a way.”

Of the increasing amount of Amish retailers who run websites, Horst observed: “They realize they need [to be online] to stay in business.”

Amish business owners and retail customers who have come around to adopting the Internet as a regular — if not constant — aspect of their lives would perhaps be unlikely to describe themselves as participating in “omnichannel” commerce, but that is what they’re doing, in the process helping to connect into online what was previously regarded (and continues to be regarded by most) as an absolutely “unconnectable” offline market segment … maybe the most offline segment that exists.

Americus Reed, a marketing professor who focuses on brand identity at Wharton, broke down the Amish journey from offline to online to the Inquirer thusly: “If the core customer goes to online and that is where they are getting their information and that is where they are going to actually purchase, then the mantra will be ‘change or die.’”

Kind of a severe take on things, Professor Reed. Then again, Amish people are no different than any other people in many regards: They don’t want to die alone.

That’s why there are Amish online dating sites.

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