In this day and age of e-commerce and internet-only presence, a brick and mortar business evokes a sense of a time gone by, when running a business meant getting ready in the morning and going to a fixed location every day.
Times are very different today. E-commerce is the norm and many businesses and start-ups offer services and products via the digital medium alone. One instance is travel services. When all the research and even financial transactions can be done sitting at work or home, there is no longer a need to go somewhere and book a vacation. Or even retail therapy for that matter does not necessitate dressing up and stepping out. Or groceries. Everything comes home, without the customer required to go anywhere.
Is it then any wonder that brick and mortar offices are slowly becoming a thing of the past? But is that entirely true? Let’s delve a little deeper and find out more, shall we?
Meaning: what’s in a word?
‘Brick and mortar’ is defined as: existing as a physical building, especially a shop, rather than doing business only on the internet.
When compared to e-commerce businesses of this century, a brick and mortar business is a company that has a retail presence, e.g. a shop or a chain of shops, and offers face-to-face customer experiences. These shops have a physical presence that lets customers visit, talk to the staff, touch and handle products and buy in person.
And that is where the big difference lies. But before that, a small lesson in history.
How did the term originate?
The moniker ‘brick and mortar’ is a metonymy, a figure of speech that is derived from the very material that a physical structure is made of: bricks and mortar. The earliest references to it can be found in the 19th century when British novelist Charles Dickens used the phrase in his book ‘Little Dorrit’.
It is also one of the few words that is a retronym, which means it is used to describe shops that had a physical presence before the internet came into being. Interestingly, the term is also used to describe businesses from a pre-internet era, to distinguish those stores with a physical presence as against those that had an order-by-mail model.
A brief history of retail stores, and more
It’s really difficult to say when brick and mortar businesses actually came to be. Perhaps the earliest vendor stalls in the first few towns laid the foundation for permanent, fixed stores. This was when traders stopped moving from town to town and began selling farm produce, clay pots, handmade clothing, etc. in the village market. Since then brick and mortar shops have remained an integral and important part of shopping and customers.
All businesses of the 19th and early to mid-20th century started off as single brick and mortar establishments. And then they grew to become a chain of brick and mortar establishments. Case in point is McDonald’s, a company that started with a small restaurant and now is a massive global business with restaurants in over 100 countries. However, like many businesses of its times, it too has an online presence, and its business model works splendidly on both platforms.
Present day scenario: can online and brick-and-mortar co-exist?
Many smaller businesses, those that are still limited to a brick and mortar model, have realised the importance of being ‘online’. Some, like smaller restaurants or a dry cleaning service, now have apps and websites to reach customers or to improve their service.
But does it also work the other way? Do online businesses also feel the need for a brick and mortar presence? It seems they do. Several online businesses have non-public physical facilities from where they conduct their business. It could be a warehouse from where they store and distribute goods, a call centre to handle customer queries and grievances, and, of course, an office where the business owners and other staff members operate from. This could be a permanent physical space, or they could operate out of a co-working set-up.
Throughout history, this physical presence, a retail store where a customer can go and look for a product, or a place where they can service or repair their products, or have their grievances addressed, has played a crucial role in the customers’ shopping journey.
Many companies and business models today are a product of the digital world. And while they continue to operate in cyberspace, there is a distinct need for a physical presence where the people behind the business can come together, on occasion, if need be, for the efficient functioning of the business itself.