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27 March 2013

Home is where the heart is

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From Opinion column issue 65 – Early spring 2013

Is home shopping killing the high street? For most of the twelve years in which we’ve been publishing F&E magazine we’ve rubbished that idea. Home shopping was just a single-figure percentage of all shopping, we’ve always argued, so how could it be blamed for the kind of decline that the high street has experienced for many years?

Well, home shopping represents more than 10 per cent of all shopping now. Even the British Retail Consortium, with its more conservative method of calculation, puts it at almost that proportion. What’s more, some estimates suggest it could reach 20 per cent within the next four years, and ultimately up to 50 per cent.

OK, so let’s face it – home shopping is scarcely helping the high street’s cause – and that’s putting it mildly. The question is, what should be done about it? Retailers can’t make home shopping more difficult for consumers, because that’s manifestly what they want. So how can they make high-street shopping more appealing?

The current answer to this appears to be summed up in a single word: "omnichannel". In the post-multichannel world we’re not sure what it actually means, but the most important thing is that it sums up a state of mind.

It means exploiting modern technology instead of fighting it – allowing consumers to research, examine, compare, whether by touching goods in shops, viewing stock through iPads or kiosks, scanning a QR code through the shop window, or simply buying online.

Click and collect is part of this, but don’t be deceived; an indeterminate but significant proportion of click and collect sales are being cannibalised from existing in-store sales, and are made to people who don’t mind visiting shops.

Still, it’s part of the solution, and so are drop-off networks like CollectPlus and ByBox banks in malls and shopping parades. These systems are blurring the lines between high-street and home shopping, creating something new and different that doesn’t even have a name yet.

The truth is, home shopping isn’t killing the high street; it’s consumer choice that’s doing it, and ultimately the only way to save it will be by reflecting, not denying, that choice.

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