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This Brandon Kohl's is busy returning your Amazon orders

Kohl’s employee Kiana Bernico, 20 assists Shawna Britton, 27 with her Amazon return on Wednesday, July 10, 2019 in Brandon. Kohl’s in partnership with amazon.com is now accepting returns on Amazon’s behalf. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]
Kohl’s employee Kiana Bernico, 20 assists Shawna Britton, 27 with her Amazon return on Wednesday, July 10, 2019 in Brandon. Kohl’s in partnership with amazon.com is now accepting returns on Amazon’s behalf. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]
Published Jul. 11

BRANDON — Even late on a weekday morning, traffic at the small booth in the back of Kohl's is steady.

Kiana Bernico, 20, can spot her next customer before they see her orange table and the matching "Amazon returns" sign dangling overhead.

Shoppers round the corner past workout clothes and toward the racks in the boy's department while clutching crumpled bags and opened boxes. They slowly follow orange arrows affixed to the glossy linoleum floor with furrowed brows and hesitant steps. There's something unnatural about returning the phone case you bought from the world's largest online marketplace at one of its traditional department store competitors.

It's enough to make some shoppers feel like they must be mistaken about the whole process until they hear Bernico's chipper voice call out.

"Amazon return? Come on over."

The Brandon Kohl's has been accepting returns on behalf of Amazon for the last few weeks, launching the new service officially this past Monday along with the other roughly 1,200 Kohl's stores across the country. When Amazon shoppers who live near a Kohl's begin an Amazon return online, they're given the option of dropping off eligible items at the department store. Kohl's hope? It brings waves of young shoppers through its doors. Amazon's hope? It gives its shoppers a seamless return option when they've received something that didn't meet expectations.

In an industry that has pitted Amazon against department stores, traditional retailers are now actually teaming up with the rival behemoth. The influx of such partnerships shows how much traditional retailers are willing to experiment to stay relevant to a growing base of millennial and Gen-X shoppers.

Not only are traditional retailers partnering with Amazon, they're streamlining their entire online ordering systems because it's where sales growth is headed. Retailers are faced with the choice of evolving with customers' tastes and finding creative ways to get them in stores, or risk going out of business.

"Amazon is not going anywhere," said James Miller, the spokesman for the Florida Retail Federation. "So, if you can't beat them, join them."

In February, a U.S. Department of Commerce survey found that sales made online exceeded those made inside of physical stores for the first time ever. The department's latest survey results show that in-store sales have grown by just under 3 percent over the first five months of this year compared to last, while online sales have grown by 10 percent over the same period.

"What the brick-and-mortar stores are facing is loss of consumers," said Donna Davis, a marketing professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "What they need is foot traffic."

Shawnna Britton , 27, walked into Kohl's on a Wednesday morning with three dresses she ordered off Amazon. None of them fit. She leaned on Bernico's table, swiping her smartphone screen until she found the QR code — a digital barcode that can be read by smartphones — Amazon emailed her.

"I only did the one," she told Bernico, "because I'm not sure I did it right."

Bernico looked at the glowing screen, and told Britton that's all it took. As Bernico printed a label to process the first dress, Britton tapped through the Amazon app to get the other two QR codes ready to be scanned. The whole process was over in a couple of minutes.

"That was easy," Britton said, clutching her receipts and package tracking numbers.

Britton said she prefers buying items online and had never been inside a Kohl's before that morning. Kohl's even handled the packaging and postage labels for free, taking on the most cumbersome tasks that come with shipping online returns.

Bernico handed Britton three Kohl's coupons, one for each of the Amazon orders she returned. Soon, the first-time Kohl's shopper was browsing the baby clothes across from the Amazon booth, thrilled to discover she could stack her new coupons on top of existing sale prices.

Kohl's piloted the Amazon return program over two years in about 100 stores and found it increased the number of first-time customers. During a recent investors call, Kohl's CEO Michelle Gass admitted the new partnership would up expenses to cover staffing and the packaging logistics. But she called working with the online leader a "long-term bet."

"Millennials are dictating a lot of what the future of shopping is going to look like," said Miller, the state retail federation spokesman. "This is a population growing more and more powerful in terms of spending power, and they've only known the internet."

[See inside Ruskin's massive Amazon fulfillment center]

There are a growing number of shoppers who like to order items online from a traditional store and then pick them up in person. Sometimes it's for convenience, to be certain an item is available and easy to find, or just to avoid shipping fees. Retailers incentivize their buy-online, pick-up-in-store programs in hopes their customers impulse-buy something else during their trip.

In a summer consumer survey by the National Retail Federation, 71 percent of shoppers said they've purchased something online and picked it up in a store. Most respondents who have used the service said they were satisfied with the experience.

Kohl's has its employees handle their online order pickups near the Amazon return desk. Target has redone its customer service desk to include a buy-online, pick-up-in-store counter. Walmart has a similar setup — as well as high-tech pickup towers so shoppers can grab orders without even talking to an employee.

Shoppers like what's quick. Retailers that used to rely on brand loyalty are trying to make things as easy as possible as a way to retain business.

"We're agnostic," said Davis, the professor and expert in supply chains, about today's shopper. "We want what we want when we want it. We don't care where we get it from."

Kohl's isn't the only store hoping an Amazon tie will benefit its bottom line.

Stein Mart partnered with Amazon in May to unroll in-store Amazon lockers so shoppers can pick up online orders there. Rite Aid drug store, which has no Florida locations, is teaming up with Amazon to set up order pickup counters. Rite Aid has the counters in 100 stores so far with plans for them to be spread across 1,500 locations by the end of the year. Amazon will even ship tires to Pep Boys and the remaining Sears Auto Centers.

Although Amazon is experimenting with its own physical stores via the "Amazon Go" concept, setting up shop inside existing stores is keeping the company from spending millions of dollars building new locations nationwide, Davis said.

At the same time, Kohl's has experimented with more than just Amazon to stay current. The chain also has shrunk some of its storefronts to then lease the leftover space to popular grocer Aldi and gym Planet Fitness. Davis said positioning itself next to grocery stores and gyms is another creative way to generate that desired foot traffic and target a younger demographic.

Back in Brandon, Bernico had to call for a coworker to unload her booth just two hours after the store opened. The area she had to store goods was packed with bags and envelopes, from the dozen or so people she helped that morning.

With Amazon's popular Prime Day sales starting on Monday, it's likely Bernico's booth will only get busier.

Contact Sara DiNatale at sdinatale@tampabay.com. Follow @sara_dinatale.

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