Gap’s Piperlime Problem: Online To Stores Isn’t So Easy

Written by Frank Hayes
May 23rd, 2012

Moving a brick-and-mortar retail chain online is a pretty well understood process at this point. Gap is now facing the opposite problem: how to turn its online-only Piperlime store into a brick-and-mortar business. The verdict so far: This isn’t as easy as it was supposed to be.

The irony is that opening new store brands online is easy, once a chain has its E-Commerce presence up and running. Infrastructure can be shared, and the challenge is mainly making the new brand distinctive. But if anything, going the other way is actually harder than opening a completely new physical-store brand from scratch.

The problem for Gap is its Piperlime brand, which the $11.8 billion chain launched in 2006 as an online footwear retailer. Gap is now working to open at least one brick-and-mortar Piperlime store, the way it has with its Athleta athletic-clothing site-turned-into-chain. But when talking to analysts on May 17, Gap CEO Glenn K. Murphy said the process with Piperlime hasn’t been straightforward.

“We’re taking a little bit of the blueprint from Athleta. Now they’re different businesses for sure,” Murphy said. “Well, we’ve taken that blueprint for Piperlime and so it’s tough. If we were standing right now in September in SoHo, I could articulate to you how that 4,500-square foot store is going to come across.”

That may sound like merely a store-design problem. But in a merged-channel world, it’s more than that. Going from bricks to online means a chain has to translate not just the overall design of a store to the site, but also the little personality details that aren’t just a logo or color scheme. Customers expect Walmart’s site to feel like Walmart and for to match what they expect of the Nordstrom experience. If it doesn’t, the store and the site will feel like they don’t belong together.

That’s a challenge, even after more than a decade of retail translation to online. Much easier is launching a sub-brand that leverages the E-Commerce infrastructure to go after a slightly different customer. Almost anything is possible, because there’s only one channel and no translation of an existing experience required.

But going from pure-play E-tail to physical stores is hardest of all. All the questions that never had to be answered online now must be addressed: What’s the floor plan? How do the associates look and behave? How much merchandise? What type of POS arrangement? What about lighting? Loss-prevention arrangements? In-store technology? How much of the square footage is stockroom? How fast are shelves replenished? Are you offering customers Wi-Fi? Will their mobile phones work in the store?

A chain that started with stores can steal some of the answers from existing stores, but that’s not a perfect answer.


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