Monday, 27 February 2012

Bricks? Mortar? Or Both?

By now, we've all seen the ugly decline of the High Street shop. A good part of it is, of course, due to the recession which just does not seem to want to let go. Another part, however, clearly has to do with the unstoppable march of the on-line shop.

Does it have to be like that?

Do High Streets have to lose the colour of their various shops?

I don't think so.

To be honest, I am as guilty of robbing the bricks and mortar shops of their business. There's little I hate more than prowling shop after shop in search of whatever it is I wanted to buy. It is way easier to click-click-click and have it delivered to the door, usually within a day or two (go Amazon, go!).

But, in the very last sentence above lies also a pitfall of on-line shopping - and a chance for brick and mortar (also an opportunity for postal services, but more on that later).

It should be obvious, really: 99% of deliveries - especially free and cheap kind - will arrive between Monday and Friday, and within business hours. Which is really not good at all. I mean, the reason I can buy stuff in the first place is because I have a job. And, like a vast majority of others, I have a (sort of) 9 to 5 job. So, I am usually not at home when the delivery comes. So, I usually have to either take a day off - which is expensive and relies on knowing the exact day of delivery - or I have to go pick up the package from my local delivery depot. You don't even have to be unlucky and have yours open only between 7am and 1pm on workdays and 7am and 11am on Saturdays for it to be an inconvenience. And you have to be lucky and have your employer happy for you to use their post room facilities for your personal shopping needs.

Let's now take stock and see what we've got here and how it can be reshuffled to everyone's benefit...

I love shopping on-line. It's quick, easy, convenient, and not least you can do it in your undies (or even out of them if you're that way inclined). But I also like to touch and try at least some things before I buy them - and I don't just mean shoes and clothes. For example, when buying a laptop it can be essential to try a few different keyboards in order to avoid disappointment (and endless typos). So, there's definitely a place for brick and mortar shops where you can do just that. They could or could not hold or even sell stock. I'd be happy for them to just be built around the need for a customer to play with products and then either complete the sale from home or, even better, use an in-store secure terminal to do it there and then. Especially for bigger and more expensive items this would be a good thing?

When it comes to delivery I think a brick and mortar shop of the see-and-play type described above can be handy, too. While it may not necessarily hold stock that's available to buy on the spot (an expensive exercise in itself), it could act as a delivery depot for stuff you buy from them on-line. If nine times out of ten I need to go to my Royal Mail delivery depot on a Saturday I may just as well make the trip to my local store. It's more fun for me (delivery depots are usually in quite drab places devoid of any other facility), and it can be good for the shop which could try and make me buy something else if I have to pass through its display department. Maybe pick up and accessory for whatever I bought. While it may be silly and expensive to stock 100 inch TVs in a High Street store, it should be cheap and easy to have cables and other consumables you'll need with them.

Of course, the TV example is a bit silly and strained. With the sizes in which they come these days you really do want them delivered to your living room. Which is where we come to the promised postal services bit. If these want to enhance their business - and get more of it - they really need to seriously consider making more and cheaper outside-of-business-hours deliveries. It may be that the wages are higher for these hours, and it may be that the uptake could be slow, but surely once the volumes picked up it would be profitable for all. Have shops and couriers share the early pain, and they'll end up sharing the increase in volumes and profits, too.

In summary, and probably apart from the last bit about delivery services, these changes should be relatively easy and cheap to implement. The shops and staff are already there. Re-purposing stock rooms to hold customer orders rather than unsold items should be simple, and may even reduce the storage space costs as the space required may even be reduced. The point of sale systems are mostly already general purpose, networked terminals so converting them to on-line style shopping in store should be easy. Most would really only need turning 180 degrees to face the customer. Even the existing Chip and Pin terminal can say as a payment system increasing customer security. Probably the most difficult part would be to bear the pain of the increased overtime payments for postal delivery staff. But, with a bit of luck, and a lot of determination this should eventually pay dividends, too.

So there you go. This is what I think can, and should, be done to save the High Street and at the same time make shopping an even better experience for the customer. And it should be obvious that customer convenience leads to increased sales. Which is what we all want, don't we?