Bon-Ton Stores CEO Navigates Tides of e-Commerce

It has already swept some companies under the rug, such as RadioShack, and greatly threatened others, including Best Buy. Business chiefs in retailing and marketing, including Kathryn Bufano of Bon-Ton Stores, want to make sure they can help their companies come out on top.

“We’re being careful and mindful to understand how shopping habits are changing in the department store as in retail in general. We intend to change and evolve with it.”

“The retailing business is evolving, and in the department-store sector, the influence of e-commerce and the Internet is very strong,” said Bufano, the head of Bon-Ton, a Midwestern chain of 273 stores, told CEO Briefing. “We’re being careful and mindful to understand how shopping habits are changing in the department store as in retail in general. We intend to change and evolve with it.”

But while discount merchants are reorganizing to promote Internet ordering of goods that customers go to the store to pick up, right now the emphasis at Bon-Ton—whose chains include Carson’s and Boston Store—is on using an online platform to optimize the experience of the customer once they’re already in a Bon-Ton outlet.

Called “Let us find it,” this initiative helps Bon-Ton store employees “fulfill the desire of the customer when she’s in the store,” Bufano said. “We’ll find whatever she’s looking for from any location within our [physical] footprint and our e-commerce facility and get it to her. That’s our big push this year.”

Still, Bufano emphasized that “Let us find it” is only one way that Bon-Ton is trying to navigate the ongoing sea change in American shopping habits. Bon-Ton chains will begin their own “click-and-pick-it-up” programs next year, for instance. “And we need to be competitive in terms of our capabilities for servicing our customer,” she said. “We don’t feel our customers are exclusive to the department-store channel. They shop at different channels for different things so we need to have the capabilities to match what their needs are.

“We don’t feel our customers are exclusive to the department-store channel. They shop at different channels for different things so we need to have the capabilities to match their needs.”

“Now, more than ever, the customer comes first, and the customer wants to shop when and how she wants, and we want to make sure we connect with her in many different ways.” It appears, however, that Bon-Ton and other retailers may not have to worry as much about one factor as the e-commerce revolution proceeds: “showrooming.” It was thought that this practice—in which consumers visit stores only to research articles and then order them online—helped lay low Best Buy. But new research suggests that actually a reverse phenomenon of showrooming is becoming more prevalent.

It’s called “webrooming,” or choosing and comparing products online but buying them at a physical store. An Accenture study showed that 78 percent of shoppers surveyed said they had webroomed during the previous 12 months. And it showed that the number of U.S. shoppers planning to visit physical stores rose from 9 percent a year earlier to 21 percent now.

Bufano and Bon-Ton will be doing their part to nudge that number higher.

Dale Buss :Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other business publications. He lives in Michigan.