Written by Julie Babb

Like many families, we’ve been playing it safe and doing most of our shopping online since March 2020. But this year, my kid is entering kindergarten (weeps quietly). Armed with his very first back-to-school supply list, I decided to celebrate with an actual trip to our local Target (on a Wednesday afternoon, to avoid crowds). Pre-pandemic, I’d make a Target run without even thinking about it. Now, after so much time away from brick-and-mortar shopping, I felt like I was seeing the store in a whole new light. Is this what shopping really is? Is this what it should be?

I came home with my purchases and an idea for an experiment: I would shop the same list on Target.com and make a direct comparison between the two experiences. Shopping the list at Target Upon arriving, we headed for the in-store Starbucks to fuel up with some treats. I didn’t want anyone getting peckish while we were halfway through our shopping list. Plus, it’s fun to treat yourself, and this was a special occasion.

Things went downhill from there. The store had a selection of school supplies near the entrance, but the majority of kids’ items were on the second floor. We needed a backpack, and as we walked around, we discovered three backpack sections, one downstairs and two upstairs. Which to choose? Where to choose? I still don’t understand that logic.

Obviously, lots of other people are shopping for school stuff this time of year, but the number of empty shelves was surprising. Target was completely out of the pencils and glue sticks we needed. Having gotten accustomed to the endless shelves of e-commerce, the idea of something I wanted simply not being there was extra frustrating.

All told, it took an hour to finish shopping, and we weren’t able to find everything on the list. But before checking out, we detoured into the Cat & Jack clothing section. I held a few cute outfits up to the boy’s body for sizing as he played with a dino Nerf gun he’d found. I hadn’t planned on buying him clothes, but hey, why not? And then somehow there was a dino Nerf gun in my cart, too.

Shopping the list at Target.com

Among my fellow parents, Target.com is known for having the least intuitive navigation architecture known to man (and moms). But their search bar works great, so if you have a list of specific items you need, the site redeems itself. When I searched for backpacks, I found what I wanted right away—and there were so many more options than in store! In fact, I was able to find everything on our list in just 20 minutes.

The downside: I’d envisioned our first back-to-school shopping trip as a bonding experience, something my son and I could do together. But after two minutes of watching me navigate Target’s website, he lost interest and wandered off to play with that dino Nerf gun.

On a more positive note, I spent enough to get free shipping, which is an emotional requirement, and spent less in total without the Starbucks treats and impulse buys.

So, what did we learn?

Here’s the deal. As a working parent, I want the perks of retail shopping and the efficiencies of online shopping. E-commerce will continue to dominate the landscape, but for businesses looking to capture customers with families, it’s time to merge the best of both worlds.

Give me a sense of delight—and treats

Does your e-commerce experience only appeal to the efficiency-driven part of a customer’s brain? If so, you need to find ways to shift people into fun mode, the way a Starbucks treat sets the stage for an enjoyable time at Target. Besides, you never know when someone is shopping for a special reason, or because they’re in a celebratory mood.

Boxed does a great job of this. With every delivery, I get a little gift bag with a surprise food item in it. It’s not anything major, but it never fails to make me smile, and it leaves me feeling good about the brand itself.

How I feel when I open a Boxed package.

How I feel when I open a Boxed package.

Create an experience my family can share

As much as I might like to pretend that my son enjoys my lectures on Target.com’s inferior information architecture, I know in my heart he just doesn’t care. But there are some purchases—clothes, books, toys, school supplies—that I want to make together, and it’s unfortunate that most ecommerce is simply not engaging enough for kids (or adults, for that matter).

CAMP is one brand that gets this right. Their Present Shop lets kids choose items in a carefully curated environment that’s “fun, safe, and secure.” Parents control the budget, and kids can shop for themselves or pick out a present for someone else. Products are organized by age grouping, and you can even design a custom card to accompany your gift.