While headlines continue to lament a retail apocalypse in light of recent high profile closures, it’s important to keep in mind that physical retail hasn’t lost its market dominance. E-commerce growth has slowed steadily over the past few years, while brick-and-mortar still has a $20 trillion lead over e-commerce.
But that doesn’t tell the full story, either. Rather than looking at the retail climate as the rise of digital at the expense of the corner store, marketers have to consider the full context. It’s not as though the high streets and their digital counterparts are operating in silos, anymore. More and more, successful brands are combining the two.
The Fusion of E-commerce and Physical Retail
Instagrammable pop-up shops by digital native brands, seamless buy-online-pick-up-in-store experiences, and China’s coffee shopping are a few examples of how e-commerce and physical retail are fusing. But retailers are using other creative combinations, too.
Daniel Patton, CEO of CarbonKlean, developed a modern pocket lens cleaner for eyeglasses and decided to finance it the old fashioned way: on Shark Tank. But before going on the show to pitch for venture capital, Patton spoke to the original Shark, Kevin Harrington.
“Kevin actually called me back right before I was supposed to fly down there,” Patton says, “and he convinced me that it made more sense to go with him than it did to go on Shark Tank.” He says he doesn’t regret it.
Harrington liked the product so much he partnered with Patton to finance the product launch, starting with a run of e-commerce sales to see how customers would respond.
Use E-commerce to Pilot Your Proof of Concept
Patton says they did about half a million dollars in online trial run sales (the product retails at $44.97 for a set of three lens cleaners). After such promising growth in the e-commerce space, Patton could have pursued major retailers like Walmart, Target and Sears.
Instead, he first courted optometrists. While medical offices don’t spring to mind when thinking of booming retail outlets, Patton’s strategy was focused, and its precision paid off.
Don’t Overlook Niche Retailers
“That first year, I probably walked into two or three thousand medical offices,” Patton says.
By his estimate, doctors selling his brand generate between $30,000 and $50,000 in annual profits just from selling CarbonKlean’s products in their offices. It’s a big incentive for doctors, and an added convenience for patients. Patton gets his target audience, and doctors can even have the product branded with their name and address to promote their practice.
“The great thing about doctors is they talk to their friends,” Patton says. “So we would constantly get a lot of word of mouth.” After bringing together e-commerce and independent retail, Patton and Harrington finally went for the big fish.
Target Big Box Retailers and Parent Companies With Multiple Relevant Brand Outlets
“We went into every Walmart Optical with 24 units a product just for them to sell out,” says Patton. “They put 24 units in just under 3,000 stores and they sold it out in a few weeks.” Of the 30 comparable products on Walmart’s optical accessory shelves, CarbonKlean quickly rose to the top three in sales.
He and Harrington also targeted eyewear outlets like Pearle Vision, and their sister companies Lens Crafters, Sunglasses Hut, Target Optical and Sears Optical, all of which are owned by Luxottica.
“We actually were asked by the leadership of Pearle Vision if Kevin could come and give the keynote at their annual convention,” Patton laughs. It turns out the CEO of Pearle lives in the Cincinnati neighborhood where Harrington grew up.
By now, CarbonKlean is represented in all Pearle Vision’s 118 corporate stores and quickly moving into all of their 417 franchises. They’ve attained a prominent presence in brick-and-mortar retail, both nationally and in local independents, thanks to early use of e-commerce.
Brick and Mortar Can Be An Endgame, Even in the Digital Age
Patton and Harrington are still using e-commerce and have generated tens of millions in online revenue since partnering together, but at this point, brick-and-mortar makes up around 60 percent of CarbonKlean’s sales.
Their strategy was a reversal of the usual, in which e-commerce is the end goal, whether or not it’s the starting point. By utilizing e-commerce as a launchpad to brick-and-mortars, and incorporating old school techniques like stomping the pavement and cold pitching, Patton and Harrington hybridized the digital and physical retail worlds into a modern retail success.
This article originally appeared on Forbes.