- - Sunday, July 31, 2016

BERLIN — The history of modern retailing runs like this: Mom-and-pop shops fall prey to superstores that, in turn, get squeezed out by the international giants of online commerce.

Germany, however, is writing a chapter that is injecting fresh life into main streets and shopping malls around the country.

Struggling to compete with e-commerce global behemoths such as Amazon, Germany’s online retailers are moving back to bricks-and-mortar in order to attract “omni-channel” clients — customers who want to be able to blend the benefits of online browsing with shopping in cool, real-world stores.

Take Helmar Hipp, CEO of Cyberport, a Dresden-based home electronics retailer that boasts an online catalog to rival that of any technology superstore. It recently opened 15 stores across Germany and Austria to offer the discerning customer a high-end shopping experience.

“We like to run our stores like a small fashion boutique that can connect people with the products that are relevant to them,” said Mr. Hipp.

The trend is responding to the needs of clients whose shopping experience could include researching a product online, buying it in-store, returning it through the mail and receiving a different model via a website, said Martin Gersch, an e-commerce professor at Berlin’s Humboldt University.

It’s a model that can help German digital operators poach buyers from American internet leaders, he said.

“There are fields where German online retailers can’t offer lower prices in comparison with companies like Amazon, so they have to compete by offering a better way to purchase items,” said Mr. Gersch. “Many startups find a niche where customers are prepared to pay more and thereby avoid competing directly with industry giants.”

Running flagship real-world locations enables internet-based companies to connect directly with their clients. “It is still important for people to go to the stores, try out new technologies and to become familiar with the brand,” Mr. Gersch said.

Another e-commerce player heading back to the main street is fashion retailer Zalando, which is mixing fixed outlets with pop-up shops in department stores and temporary locations to get face to face with customers.

“The outlets create the possibility to sell lightly damaged merchandise or merchandise that doesn’t follow conventional sizing in an attractive environment,” said company spokeswoman Nadine Przybilski. “We are not trying to build a strong chain offline but to supplement our online business.”

Face-to-face interaction makes it easier to gauge customer satisfaction and improve the experience, she said.

Cautious German consumers were late in warming to e-commerce and have only recently overcome concerns over data privacy to embrace online shopping.

E-commerce sales totaled $14.7 billion in 2004 but tripled to $44.12 billion in 2013, the latest year figures were available.

In comparison, United States e-commerce sales reached $68 billion in 2004 and climbed to $261 billion in 2013, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

That expansion has persuaded real-world retailers such as fashion house Hugo Boss and tech trader Mediamarkt to increase their online presence, even as they consolidate store networks around the country.

Cyberport’s Mr. Hipp says it’s easier for digital retailers to expand into bricks-and-mortar stores than for traditional venders to move in the other direction. It took his company five years to set up a successful real-world sales plan, Mr. Hipp said, while Mediamarkt needed a decade to find its feet online.

Another issue is payment. German customers prefer cash to credit card payments.

Although heightened security options through payment systems such as PayPal have eased concerns over online payments, retailers know consumers will be attracted by stores that let them hand euros over the counter — even for products chosen online.

Running both online and Main Street operations may mean more work for retailers, but e-commerce professor Mr. Gersch believes offering customers a range of options will pay off and help keep American e-commerce giants from completely taking over the market.

“There are some products that lend themselves well to online sales, and people will look to buy them at the lowest price, but other products customers want to see and touch before they purchase them,” he said. “The same person will most likely be using different channels to buy the two products. These customers are more loyal and have come to expect to be able to make transactions in different ways.”

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