Are “Dark Stores” the store of the future? Our research indicates the answer is an unequivocal sometimes. But for starters, the lexicon is all wrong. If this is the commonplace term used to define the new future of commerce, it’s a dismal one and demands to be rebranded with more positive and hopeful language. Technically, these are traditional retail stores converted to operate as fulfillment centers for various retail categories that increasingly lack the distinct role they once played in the lives of consumers: grocery stores, specialty, home improvement retailers, etc. And that the future of commerce must be greater than the dismal vision of so-called “dark stores.”
Regardless, our research findings are instructive for conceptualizing this new future. For starters, there is increasingly widespread acceptance of this hybrid model for commerce.
The widespread acceptance among consumers—more than 40% to “dark” restaurants, followed closely behind by Box, Drug and Grocery. Nearly half of the respondents would gladly embrace a “pickup only” model. Sure the great accelerator (COVID-19) is likely a driver of this response, but so is the way consumers are shopping as more and more consumers are turning to digital first as a means to solve their shopping dilemma, experience, and need.
When we presented consumers with images of a well-designed and exemplary hybrid model as an alternative to dark stores offering the option of a space with traditional in-store shopping spaces as well as delivery, BOPIS and BOPAS, acceptance was shockingly high.
We showed respondents a schematic of a futuristic design of a grocery unit. This hybrid unit offered a limited floor space for shopping. Yes, you can go inside and grab a cup of coffee. You can even attend a cooking class. But you cannot hand-pick every item you want from the store shelf. Someone else will do this for you in a showroom scenario, then converted to BOPAS. That’s a significant break from the staid, uniform model of the 20th century store. Perhaps, not surprisingly, consumers—even when only presented with a floor plan—embraced this new model of commerce and modern consumer convenience. While only about 28% fully embraced this model, saying that they were “very likely” to shop at such a location, the next two boxes reflect a latent affinity for this futuristic option: Nearly 28% said they were “somewhat likely” and 30% said they were likely to shop such a location.
When you add those three respondent categories together, what you have is practically the entire market of consumers—with nearly 86% of shoppers extremely open-minded and ready to trail this new model for commerce. And that’s before even having a chance to trial such a model. Or even being able to see it as more than a floor plan! The willingness to embrace an entirely new model of shopping deserves attention. Indeed, this is a staggering finding—and a solid foundation on which to build a new location strategy for many brands.
It’s important to put such findings in perspective. How should many brands and retail categories interpret these potentially devastating changes in consumer behavior? When we return to a semblance of normalcy, it will undoubtedly be an unrecognizable new era for commerce and consumer culture. But some things won’t change. Brands and retailers must still shape a competitive trajectory and a brand identity. They must define themselves as relevant in the marketplace and give consumers what they want, and more importantly, how they want it even if they’ve forgotten they still want it.