online-glaze“Excuse me, but where can I find the ‘Ulta Ultimate Shine Luminous Clear Glaze?’ White and grey tube, about so tall? It was here last time, but it seems to have moved. Again.”

The sales clerk gave me a blank look. “I’ve never heard of that. I don’t think we carry it.”

I sighed, because this happened the last time, too. “Well, I’ve been buying it here…”

“Oh. Let me get our manager. Maybe she knows.”

So I browsed the aisles for awhile, taking note of other sad, lost customers peering into the confusing array of goops, potions, and lotions that festoon the Cedar Hills Ulta store. Maybe 15 minutes later, a woman bustled up, my sales clerk following in her wake.

online-aisle1“Ma’am, you need what?”

Ulta Ultimate Shine Luminous Clear Glaze, please.”

“OK, that’s what I thought. We’ve discontinued it and we have a new version. Unfortunately, we’re out of it right now. I’m sorry.”


Ulta Cedar Hills Crossing
Total search time:
75 minutes (plus gas and frustration)
Results: Failure

At home, I hit up the Ulta website and found the glaze. I also found a bunch of reviews that said John Freida’s version was better, for the same price. It’ll be here Tuesday.

Ulta online
Total search time:
15 minutes
Results: Successful acquisition of 1 tube of hair glaze

If you want to know what’s killing the local bricks & mortar store, well, there you go. After I ordered, I headed over to and discovered the same John Freida glaze available on Amazon Prime (i.e. free shipping) for about half the price as an “add-on” item. Drat–I’ll know next time.

I go well out of my way to support local businesses (which Ulta most emphatically is not), but I’ve gotten to the point where physically going to a store is something I only do if I’m:

  • Looking for ideas and exploring (the way I’d go to an art gallery or museum), or
  • 100 percent certain that I’ll find what I’m seeking, or
  • Extremely flexible as to my requirements (as when I’m grocery shopping), or
  • Desperately in a rush and willing to take a chance

The rest of the time, I find it far more effective (and satisfying) to simply purchase online. If I know exactly what I want, it’s faster, easier, and often cheaper. Plus, I can frequently find something online, choose a vendor with a local store, and simply pick it up there.

I think we’re rapidly getting to the day when brick-and-mortar local stores take on one of two very defined roles:

  • Browseable shopping experiences (that museum/restaurant thing) where customers want to be led into a unique purchase and are willing to spend time being led
  • Physical showrooms and delivery depots, i.e., the start- and end-points of an online supply chain

Part of the issue is the web itself; it’s accustomed us to search. Search engines are a fast and effective way to ferret out exactly the product(s) you’re seeking, finding the best prices, and figuring out who’s got them in stock.

online-amazonThink about how you’d shop at, say, Amazon. There, you have a clear list of product with filters that let you organize and zero in on your choices. You can save items you’re not sure about, and you have other customer reviews guiding you to different products.

Modern consumers have gotten used to this. I think that’s why they (or at least I) often find physical stores exhausting and frustrating.

Physical stores, unfortunately, lack a search engine, so you can’t logically group and filter their products. Instead, you hope the store manager has read your mind and done it for you, i.e., defined well-labeled aisles and shelves, and hired knowledgeable clerks to assist you. Better still, that the owner (or parent company) has invested in up-to-date inventory systems, great supply chain management, and the employees are really really good at restocking.

Too many stores fail on one/more/most counts. In my Ulta store, for example, there probably was some logic to the product organization, but I didn’t have time to figure it out. The only hints I had were cryptic bar codes and shaky block type on the front shelf inventory tags.

So I relied on the products themselves, but I’m not a cosmetics maven and quickly got lost. Since every brand tries to be unique, it’s hard to tell where you’re going to find the actual product name or a description of what it does.

The store sometimes organized things by product category (such as hair conditioners), sometimes by brand or product family, or sometimes by sequential functions, i.e., shampoo and conditioner and hairspray would be grouped together.

Men's shaving masquerades as haircare

Looking at the signage, you’d THINK that Ulta haircare products would be in that third bay from the left. It actually contains men’s shaving creams. No Ulta at all. (And there’s no Redken in the Redken bay, either)

Some products were snuggled in with the competitors on one aisle, but others were elsewhere in the store on featured endcaps or displays. That made it nearly impossible to tell if I was looking at ALL the hair conditioners, or where the rest might be.

The poor clerks would simply shrug. “I don’t know,” said one, “I was gone last week so now I don’t know where a lot of things are.”

Store signage was useless. In the example on the right, the signs clearly said “Professional Haircare” right at the front of the store, so that was the first place I tried. What’s actually on those shelves? Men’s shaving cream.

online-docbox20 years go, I doubt this would have bothered me. Now I’ve been spoiled by the lovely array of searching, sorting, and filtering tools at my disposal when I shop online, and physical store layouts are mostly irritating.

Which is how I wound up spending part of my Sunday testing that idea. I decided to time my shopping trip to look for two items: The Ulta hair goop, and seven plastic cases for storing household records. Then I would compare that experience with the equivalent shopping trip online.

I would have tried for a half-dozen examples, but frankly, I just don’t have that much time to spend out shopping. First up was Alta–not exactly a brick & mortar victory.

Legal document cases. I’ve just finished my taxes, I need a couple of boxes to store last year’s records, and I really like the Japanese document case I bought a few years back. I decided to pick up a few more of the same, or similar.

My first stop was the local Office Max. After about 20 minutes of fruitless searching, I asked a clerk and she looked puzzled. I realized I should have bought the box as an example because everyone (I wound up with three clerks all hunting for my quarry) thought I wanted a banker’s box. When I corrected them and said I wanted a flat, lidded, plastic documents case, long enough to hold legal documents, they shook their heads.

“We have clear plastic legal envelopes,” one said, holding up a packet. All told, they wandered Office Max for about 30 minutes before reluctantly concluding that nothing they had came close to what I wanted.

I went home and retrieved the box, then headed a couple miles down to Storables, where they had a much bigger selection. They still didn’t have anything approaching what I wanted.

“Those are REALLY cool,” said one employee, “I wish we carried something like that!”

I turned over the box and pointed to the Storables price tag. “Apparently you did at one time,” I said. They redoubled their efforts but still came up empty.

Office Max Beaverton & Storables Cedar Hills Crossing
Total search time:
2 hours, 10 minutes (not counting going home for the box)
Results: Failure. (Well, I did buy some stuff, but it had nothing to do with my goal)

Again, went home, and with a bit of googling found out the cases I wanted were Like-it MEDIX MX-15 document cases, currently not available in the US (drat). I did find close counterparts at ContainerStore, and ordered them.  They’re arriving end of next week. I could have picked them up at the local store–there’s that delivery depot thing–but I’m tired of shopping and the shipping was free.

Total search time:
20 minutes
Results: Successful acquisition of  7 document cases

Not really sure if I’ve learned anything useful from this (except that I’ve uncovered yet another first world problem, i.e., I’m an impatient person fond of instant gratification and my motto is “I want it now and I want it delivered!”). But it is instructive as far as the retail industry is concerned: Be unique like a gallery, or be a depot. Just don’t be Ulta.