The Not-So-Sweet Smell Of Brick-And-Mortar

Physical retail already has its work cut out for it in competing with the ever-growing realm of eCommerce, with convenience being a key factor that is keeping consumers out of stores.

While some players in the brick-and-mortar space are doing — and spending — all that they can to incorporate digital elements into their physical locations, build out omnichannel capabilities (including mobile payments) and/or highlight their exclusive brand offerings to make themselves look more appealing (or, at least, as appealing) to customers than the simplicity of shopping from home with a single click, there’s one rather obvious obstacle that a number of physical retailers might be overlooking:

They stink.


A new survey commissioned by Cintas Corporation (and conducted by Harris Poll) looked into not what would drive consumers to brick-and-mortar stores but an experience that could keep them from coming back to a retail location ever again. And 93 percent of respondents (all U.S.-based) reported that all it would take was a basic issue regarding the upkeep of the facility.

The number one factor that has caused U.S. shoppers to turn their backs on (and/or noses up at) a store, according to the study?

“General bad odor” — coming in at 78 percent.

This was followed by “dirty restrooms” (66 percent), “dirty surfaces” (65 percent), “entryway cleanliness” (or, rather, a lack thereof) (60 percent), with unfavorable “dressing room conditions” rounding out the top five at 56 percent.

The list goes well beyond five, mind you, going on to include things like plumbing issues, slippery floors, noise, lighting issues and uncomfortable temperature as store characteristics through which brick-and-mortar retailers are inadvertently effectively losing business, one customer at a time.

This may all seem like a silly thing at a glance, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a legitimate problem that, as the study suggests, a lot of retailers aren’t paying attention to. And that amounts to a particularly egregious oversight in an industry in which — now more than ever, and increasingly so — every dollar counts, particularly given the onslaught of competition from the online space.

As John Engel, senior marketing manager at Cintas, observed: “Today’s consumer has an almost unlimited choice when deciding where to shop, whether it’s another store across the street or online. With this type of competition, retailers need to understand why their customers return and, more importantly, why they don’t.”

With the very future of physical retail currently at a precipice never before seen, the potentially business-negating issue of store maintenance is, in some cases, actually being made worse as a direct result of merchants’ efforts to offset sales losses by cutting back on consumer-facing operational costs.

JCPenney — which had very recently been showing signs of an unexpected return to profitability, while similar department stores are shutting down locations left and right — appears to have recently leaned right into this vicious cycle, with New York Post reporting that the retailer, in response to a sales dip last month, implemented chain-wide emergency measures that included reducing employees’ hours.

An apparent result of that very tactic was consumer-off-putting untidiness at some locations, with one JCPenney employee telling the Post: “If you walked into a JCPenney store during [the two weeks when the company implemented its stopgap], you would have seen clothes on the floor and fitting rooms in disarray.”

If customers beheld that sight, it’s entirely likely that a number of them turned tail.

While the temporary cost-cutting measure did, according to the Post, save JCPenney about $8,000 in expenses per store, there’s no telling how much it may have lost in sales due to instances where (allegedly) unsightly store locations drove away would-be shoppers — 93 percent of whom, mind you, may never give the retailer a second chance. That is a problem whose duration could far outlast any benefit gained from a short-term expense reallocation.

Yes, the threat that eCommerce poses to traditional brick-and-mortar retailers is a very serious one. And while the solution for the latter companies is likely to have to include some infrastructural overhaul in order to compete with the speed and convenience that the digital realm offers, merchants that inhabit the physical space would be well-advised to also keep a deceptively simple yet core element — dare we say, the defining element — of their business model front of mind:

Mind the store.



The How We Shop Report, a PYMNTS collaboration with PayPal, aims to understand how consumers of all ages and incomes are shifting to shopping and paying online in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our research builds on a series of studies conducted since March, surveying more than 16,000 consumers on how their shopping habits and payments preferences are changing as the crisis continues. This report focuses on our latest survey of 2,163 respondents and examines how their increased appetite for online commerce and digital touchless methods, such as QR codes, contactless cards and digital wallets, is poised to shape the post-pandemic economy.

Click to comment