In Charleston, e-commerce executives say the future of online shopping might be bricks and mortar | Business

The next frontier of online shopping might just be … old-fashioned bricks and mortar.

If nothing else, blending Internet sales with an in-person retail experience is a growing focus in an e-commerce field that has run roughshod over traditional merchandisers in recent years.

That’s one takeaway from top executives at two of the biggest — and newest — names in online shopping, who spoke Wednesday at Charleston’s Dig South technology conference.

And it’s a recognition of the value of old-school storefronts that they reached from different starting points.

For the Amazon competitor Jet.com, it was being acquired by Wal-Mart in a $3.3 billion deal that came with a mandate to modernize the retail behemoth. For the bedding startup Casper, it was a realization that while young customers didn’t like the process of shopping for mattresses, they did like trying them out before opening their purse strings.

Jet’s president, Liza Landsman, likens the world’s largest retailers — Amazon and Wal-Mart — to a tiger and a shark. They’re both dominant in their realm, but neither is a “hippo” — a giant that can cross into the other’s territory.

That is to say, corporate America hasn’t yet built a retailer that can effectively operate both online and in person. No one’s managed to connect the convenience of the Internet with the efficiency of running a physical storefront, where shipping costs are lower and where the ability to touch and try out products cuts down on returns.

“That, I think, is the inflection point the industry is in that we’re all trying to solve for,” Landsman said.

It’s a race Amazon and Wal-Mart are just starting to run. Amazon is opening physical bookstores and experimenting with its own version of the standard supermarket, a shift from its strategy of pushing fast and free shipping to bring sundry shopping online.

Wal-Mart, meantime, has poured money into a new tech investment arm, and it sought to improve its online presence with Jet, which presented itself early on as a sort of Sam’s Club store for the Internet, focused on bargain deals and stripped-down efficiency.

“Whether it’s the next generation of (artificial intelligence), whether it’s some new brilliant technology that helps us bridge the digital work and the physical world, then we’ve got to place some pretty big bets to support that transformation,” Landsman said.

Now, it’s reportedly in talks to buy the menswear brand Bonobos for $300 million, a deal that would add to its arsenal an e-commerce startup that’s experimenting with physical stores. Bonobos’s chief marketing officer, Micky Onvural, will speak at the conference Thursday.

Bonobos’s strategy of letting customers try on clothes in person before buying them online has also been adopted…

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