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E-commerce has changed retail, but brick-and-mortar is making a comeback, Fargo-Moorhead experts say

“It’s a full-circle time,” one panelist said. “We will see what … (the nature of retail is) going to be post-pandemic. We’re kind of all waiting to see how that shakes out.”

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The Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce held an Eggs and Issues event Tuesday, June 7, 2022, at Courtyard by Marriott in Moorhead. Discussing changes in e-commerce and traditional retail were: moderator Shannon Full, the Chamber's president and CEO; Alissa Adams, chief operating officer for West Acres Development; Brad Duerr, e-commerce leader for SCHEELS; Ethan Flack, senior operations manager for Amazon Fulfillment in Fargo; and Dani Gilseth, founder of Grateful Cratefulls in West Fargo.
Chris Flynn / The Forum
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MOORHEAD — E-commerce is here to stay, but brick-and-mortar retail is bouncing back as the country shakes off the isolation of shopping at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The balance of how people shop is both changed and coming “full circle,” panelists at the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce’s latest Eggs and Issues event said Tuesday, June 7.

Brad Duerr, the e-commerce leader for Fargo-based SCHEELS, said the huge demand for exercise machines and “anything that could get people outdoors” early in the COVID-19 pandemic was emblematic of a “huge shift (to buying) online” for the sports and outdoors retailer.

People just felt less comfortable shopping in person, he said during the “Add to cart. Proceed to checkout. What is happening to traditional commerce?” event at the Courtyard by Marriott.

“During the pandemic, everybody became an online shopper. I think that was a fundamental change,” Duerr said.

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Now “more and more people do want to go back to bricks and mortar. There’s a social side to shopping, there’s your friends and your family. And we see a really strengthened brick-and-mortar coming back, with the mix of online. Online is about necessity and convenience,” he said.

“It’s a full-circle time,” Duerr said. “We will see what … (the nature of retail is) going to be post-pandemic. We’re kind of all waiting to see how that shakes out.”

Chamber President and CEO Shannon Full moderated the event, which included perspectives from Alissa Adams, chief operating officer of West Acres Development; Ethan Flack, senior operations manager for the Fargo Amazon Fulfillment Center; and Dani Gilseth, a founder of Grateful Cratefulls in West Fargo.

Flack said the pandemic fielded “a surge in e-commerce” that led to significant growth for the online retail giant. Though he noted “the demand pattern has stabilized.”

“I think as we move into … a more normal world, a post-pandemic world, folks are going to want to go back to brick-and-mortar stores,” Flack said.

Gilseth said hers is “a unique client base,” focused on giving a gift to someone else, but there has been more of a shift to e-commerce.

“Our business is really a 30-30-30 mix” of foot traffic in the store — people who want the sensory experience; e-commerce shoppers looking for quick, easy services; and business people, who are a mix of both — with some enjoying the in-person experience, while others prefer “a quick email pop,” and they are on their way.

Adams said customers are coming back to the West Acres Shopping Center, but the pandemic has brought new habits.

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“Consumers have become more savvy. They know what they want. They want options. They expect more” in their experiences “online or in-store,” and they expect the experience to be seamless, whether it’s online or in-person, Adams said.

Amazon, which is dipping its toes into brick-and-mortar retail, is looking to provide a tech-enhanced experience, with systems that send customers’ choices of garments to their dressing rooms, “because people want to touch some things,” Flack said.

Meanwhile, SCHEELS, which adjusted well to online selling, is still focused on its bread and butter: a wide selection of goods, with good service and expert salespeople, Duerr said.

“We consider ourselves (to be) destination retail, and that’s something we have been focused on probably the last 30 years. We have Ferris wheels, we have aquariums, we have restaurants, we have attractions. Our goal is to get families into our stores and to spend a significant amount of time there. … To support a full family, you need everything from sporting goods, to outdoor equipment, to women’s and men’s fashions,” Duerr said.

Adams said West Acres keeps a close track on what guests at the mall want and which stores are doing well or expanding. Diversity of retailers is important.

“You can’t be simply apparel,” she said. You must have “something for everyone to make sure it’s an experience.”

Gilseth said her firm has been sustained by sticking with the core philosophy of working with local vendors and good service.

“Seventy-five percent of what builds our (gift) crates right now is locally sourced. … That has always been a very important part of our business,” she said.

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The panelists said customers have gotten used to the convenience of curbside pickup.

But stores “also can’t lose sight of that traditional experience, as well, because people definitely still want that. I think it will just be a marriage of those two things,” Adams said.

Duerr said same-day delivery in most of SCHEELS’ markets is popular.

Ordering something at work and seeing it at your home, “we see a lot of people wanting that experience. … Obviously, the pandemic sped all that along,” Duerr said.

Gilseth said her shop’s online traffic rose 400% during the height of pandemic. Even today, deliveries “have drastically increased” for Grateful Cratefulls.

Flack said the pandemic “supported Amazon’s growth strategy.” Amazon is now focused on providing same-day delivery on a wider variety of goods in more markets, he said.

Helmut Schmidt is a reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead's business news team. Readers can reach him by email at hschmidt@forumcomm.com, or by calling (701) 241-5583.
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