online vs. brick & mortar

it's too bad stores don't have a search button...

>>online vs. brick & mortar

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.



  1. fostersbeauties April 14, 2016 at 7:50 pm - Reply

    My shopping expeditions to Home Depot have improved hugely since I learned that you can browse their website and find out exactly where in your local store the item is stored. Not just aisle but also bin number! It can still be challenging sometimes to find the item, but not nearly the way it is if I forget to check it out before leaving home. (No smart phone here. Sigh.) I wish every store would do that!

  2. kathryncecelia April 12, 2016 at 9:16 pm - Reply

    I am and have almost always been adverse to shopping. The exceptions are books, which I think of tactile. They require handling, one must page through them prior to purchasing to make sure it has what you seek. Second is tools, which also must be inspected and held. Clothes are necessary, but I hate shopping for them. Shoes, too. I just bought a new pair of “everyday” shoes. They aren’t tennie runners either. I sprang for Danskos at Nordstroms. After all Nordies began as a shoe store, they know shoes. I just have terrible timing. I don’t shop when things are on sale. I only decide I need things after the sales are over. I’ve worn these shoes for over a month. They fit well. They have a nice strap with velcro, no strings to have to grab with my arthritic fingers and to pull hard enough to make the shoe fit snuggly. (I often had family members tie my shoes, as I really couldn’t get them tight enough.) Now I can slip these on and push down the strap… voila! Done. But online hasn’t won me over yet. The deferred gratification puts me off. It can take several days to get what I order.

    Your post hit home with me on many notes… I have purchased an item and want another one and the staff where I got it has never seen it or heard of it! I really want my locally owned businesses to do well, so I do shop there first, but when staff turns over a lot or they quit carrying something I like, I just get crabby.

    I am going to seek out the storage box you like and see what’s up with it. I have small storage needs for beads and the place I bought them is OUT! I hope they’ll get them in, as they are very nice. If they get them in and you need small containers for fittings, findings, beads, even small bits that you’ve made of frit balls or such. They are:The Ultimate Storage @

    I enjoy your blog. It always has relevance in my life. Even a rant is something I can identify with. I will be writing you for you help with the procedure for something I want to get finished. I need experienced eyes to help me see what needs to be done. Keep up the wordsmithing.

  3. sunny April 11, 2016 at 3:22 pm - Reply

    Jeez C, wish MY taxes were done already…but otherwise I got it made. Retired compulsive window shopper who hates to go mix it up. Sit up late at night searching for the most uncommon wishes imaginable, capable of filling that last available nook/cranny in the toolroom under the stairs. If I should stumble upon whatever it might have been, I can still try to find a better deal, maybe on some other continent. When I have reached the best buy for whatever it is…I bookmark it. Instant gratification. Thats my surrogate purchase. Can you imagine that? Drives my dear wife nuts if we have to reach a sales point by car. I’ll search for a few weeks (minimum) decide on the best deal, and then forget it. On a limited budget, its not that bad of a system. Anyway, theres not that much free room in the shop. Works pretty well on just about any non edible product. Low wattage reasoning. (15W…not bright enough to read by) if you know what I mean. Good luck with the hair.

  4. Patricia Denny April 11, 2016 at 12:14 pm - Reply

    Oh I’ve become an almost total online shopper. Not only because of the convenience of finding exactly what I want, but it also lends itself to my ever-increasing desire to be a hermit. Going out of the house has become an annoying, scary experience, which takes too much time, effort, and mental energy. It’s just too peoplely out there.

    Online shopping does have one drawback. A box/packing material graveyard almost the size of Arlington Cemetery.

  5. max Klubal April 11, 2016 at 6:53 am - Reply

    I also try to support local bricks and mortar here in Adelaide, Australia.
    Works well for food.
    Not for basic 1″ brushes – for applying silicon etc. often disposable.
    Best I can do here is Au$1.10ea. regardless of how many I buy, and its a 45 min return trip to that cheap store..
    Just bought a heap from Harbor Freight in good old USA. Including postage cost me Au60c ea delivered.
    Did I mention that they were made in China – shipped to USA, handled and shipped to me here in Australia.
    We also have an electrical store here whose owner browbeats everyone into buying local.Forgets to mention that he buys his stock from China, marks it up and then wants us to buy from him!!!!

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