Looking Ahead – to 2020

It’s the time of year when people start penning predictions of the year ahead – but what about looking 10 years into the future?

A few recent pieces of news got me thinking – firstly Mary Meeker’s most recent “state of the tech nation” report confirming that 50 percent of smartphone owners have abandoned an in-store purchase after checking the prices online – backed by Marc Andreessen’s comments this week on mobile commerce effectively being the death knell for brick and mortar stores.

To look forwards, I’m going to look back – back to the UK in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when a similar phenomenon was changing the face of the High Street.

Then, it was the mass arrival of services companies in shop-fronts that had previously been used for retail. By this I mean the arrival of banks, building societies, estate agents and other service providers. At the same time, out-of-town retail parks were starting to spring up across the UK.

As a local newspaper hack, I remember reporting on the concern of local burghers that the High Street was dying as the services shops took over – where shoppers would not leave these shops with physical goods (alright, a big wad of cash would be the exception) but having purchased a service. The big questions at the time were: Who will come to the High Street if you can’t actually buy anything? Aren’t these banks etc. strangling the lifeblood of the high street? Surely the high street as we know it is dying …

Well, reports of its death were exaggerated and there have of course been several changes since then – the arrival of the high street shopping “experience” in the UK, with the advent of modern coffee shops (the previous best for many towns was a greasy cup of coffee in a down-market department store’s “restaurant”) and of course the mushrooming of shops selling mobile phones, accessories, airtime etc. That’s a topic for a separate blog post: I’m going to walk down the 500m long main shopping street in Munich  and see just how many of these mobile phone stores actually exist – because I’m sure as hell confused about how they all manage to survive.

Back to the future – so what we’ve learned from the past is that high streets are remarkably resilient – but can they survive the challenge of the “always on” future? This starts right now for many people: I’ve been doing in-store price comparisons on my cellphone for a couple of years and have even placed online orders while sheltering from the snow inside a brick and mortar store … I’ve also managed to secure price-matching discounts while in-store, just by showing a clerk the online price.

Years back when online shopping firms, the shtick was they’d be cheaper since they didn’t have the overheads of maintaining brick and mortar stores. Good one. Remember that? Funny how the prices crept up. These days the high street stores are still holding up – in many cases online is even more expensive and will always be less immediate. Once I’ve decided to buy something I want it NOW and can’t wait even 24 hours for it to be delivered. (Unfortunately in too many cases with purchased goods, I’ve actually managed to damage or break it within 24 hours but that is another story.)

So the brick and mortar stores are the meatspace shop-fronts where we touch and feel products before pulling out our mobile device, calling up an online price comparison store and ordering online from the cheapest provider.

But that’s grossly unfair!

Yes it is – which means that retailers must  focus on adding value.

And this is where Apple is a clear leader.

Its online pricing is identical to the store – yet if you drop in to one of their stores, you get the whole experience. This starts with advice on which machine or gadget to buy (granted, this is limited to the range of Apple products) and then further help with unboxing and getting set up, as well as of course accessorizing your shiny new toy, so that by the time you leave the store, you’re “all set”. Beat that, e-tailers.

Maybe in the future the e-tailers will try – and establish some kind of showroom presence on the high street. This reminds me of how the UK retailer Argos started in the late 1970s, perhaps early 80s. It was among the first catalog retailers to actually move on to the high street. Once in-store, you’d still have to leaf through a catalog to select the goods you wanted – and the store itself was no-frills, brightly lit,  so that it felt cheap, as if you were getting a bargain. After filling in your sales chitty you’d pay and go round the back to collect your goods from the on-site warehouse.

Perhaps in future, consumers will even be prepared to pay a premium for touching and feeling a product, and getting some old fashioned personal advice before buying. Just as in the food and drink trade. You can buy a bottle of wine in a supermarket and take it home to drink – or you can buy the same bottle of wine to accompany your dinner in a restaurant. In the latter case, it will cost a lot more …

Also I think people want to hit the high street for the sense of community. In the last few mad shopping days before Christmas, it’s a zoo out there – AND the streets are clogged up with delivery vans, these guys must be working 24×7 – but I’m still venturing out later today in search of a few trinkets – and inspiration for gifts since I’ve failed to find inspiration online.

What do you think? We’d love to hear your thoughts…

Simon Jones, OnPR Europe

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