Storefront e-commerce

Experimentation with the blending of online and brick-and-mortar retailing continues apace, both at a large scale, such as eBay Now and Google Shopping Express, and at a small scale here in Washington, DC, where I’m based.

In Cady’s Alley, a picturesque stretch of historic brick buildings along the old C&O Canal in tony Georgetown, developer EastBanc has begun leasing out space formerly occupied by a furniture store to a group of five online retailers looking for a brick-and-mortar presence during the holidays. The “pop-up bazaar,” as EastBanc is calling it, opened in mid-November and is currently slated to run through at least January 5. If the current test is successful, EastBanc told the Washington Post, the developer has plans to turn Cady’s Alley into a permanent space for buzzy online brands — a kind of cyber strip mall.

The current crop of five tenants is heavy on clothing and accessories, the type of products consumers like to try on before buying. “It’s much easier to create brand ID when you have a physical structure,” EastBanc’s Phillippe Lanier said. Lanier claims to have been approached by around 40 online businesses since he first floated the idea of opening up more space along Cady’s Alley. Most are small, niche retailers that would mesh well with Georgetown’s high-end clientele.

The spaces currently being occupied by the online sellers are small by traditional retail standards, and even by the standards of Georgetown, a corner of Washington older than the city itself with narrow streets and low-slung architecture. In this case, though, small works to their advantage. None of the retailers are carrying extensive inventory on hand and don’t really expect shoppers to buy in-store; the storefronts are essentially showrooms for merchandise meant to be purchased online and shipped to the customer.

The strategy is the obverse of eBay Now (or Amazon’s purported drone program), which seeks to mimic the instant gratification of brick-and-mortar retail through same-day delivery of goods. In this case, it’s the touch-and-feel aspect the sellers are after, not instant gratification. But both aim to blur the line between online and physical retailing.