Pier 1's Frightening—and Frightened—Relationship With The Web

Sometimes, retail innovation is knowing when not to play. And for $1.3 billion Pier 1 Imports, it sometimes can mean knowing when to play again. But this time around, the home furnishings chain is only going so far—and it's not nearly far enough.

Back in 2007, after years of E-Commerce activity, the retailer shut down all of its Web activity to pour its efforts into in-store. In six weeks, though, Pier 1 is returning to the Web: as a brochure site only. You can see, but you can't buy, unless you drive to a store.

Early next year, however, Pier 1 will do something that almost no other chain has done: It will relaunch its site solely as a buy-online-pick-up-in-store effort. Here again, the chain has decided that its more than 1,000 brick-and-mortar locations are its universe and the Web will only function to the extent it can deliver physical traffic.

"This will allow us to leverage our store base without any of the complexities around online payment and fulfillment," said one Pier 1 manager, who asked to not be named. "We believe this is a natural and low-risk extension of our business reach and brand."

Although this is certainly an innovative approach, we're not so sure we can agree with it being "low risk." Pier 1 has poured in the money to put all of its merchandise on the site. Why force customers to either drive into a store or go away?

The chain's representative speaks of "the complexities around online payment and fulfillment" as though both are some impenetrable fortress. If the technology is frightening, it can be outsourced. But E-Commerce has been fairly well proven.

Even worse, like many chains, Pier 1 has been shuttering its stores, making it even more likely that getting to a store will be too much of a hassle for customers. Think of it this way: If a fully functional E-Commerce site did nothing more for Pier 1 than give it a way to retain the customers who shopped at the stores they now need to shut down, isn't that worth it?

It's hard to envision a better time for E-Commerce and a stranger time to be afraid of it. We are afraid to even ask what the chain's mobile and social networking strategies are.