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The Technology Paradox in Retail

January 24, 2012 1 comment

In December, shopping transactions saw a 187% increase, year-on-year. This sounds like good news for the economy, and surely the high street. Unfortunately, this increase was purely for mobile shopping, as reported by IBM. Brand Republic, which picked up the story, noted “mobile traffic on retailers’ websites rocketed by 169%, meaning 15% of all traffic came from mobile devices during December”. The principal attractions of mobile commerce are easy to identify: it allows you to purchase items from anywhere with a phone signal rather than travelling into a store. It also allows the customer to shop around far more easily than would be possible on a high street for the best deal.

The drift toward mobile commerce, however beneficial and efficient for the customer, is part of myriad factors that are having a pejorative effect on the high street. Another, recently noted in a fantastic editorial in The Financial Times, detailed the onus shoppers must face up to, as a nation obsessed with the material quest for the very best deal possible. “We are all going to hell in a shopping basket”, read the headline.

“Through the internet we can now get relevant information instantaneously, compare deals and move our money at the speed of electronic impulses. Consumers and investors have never been so empowered. Yet these great deals come at the expense of our jobs and wages, and widening inequality.”

183 retailers fell into administration last year. The internet must shoulder a large part of the blame for this, as customers shift to the relaxation of shopping at home. Experian Hitwise reported that Boxing Day 2011 was the biggest ever day for online retail in the UK, an incredible stat (one of many covered by eConsultancy), especially while circumstances for bricks-and-mortar stores seem so dire.

However, while digital technology is keeping people from shopping on the high street, it is also helping it evolve. Recently, CNBC reported from New York on the National Retail Federation’s annual convention. Technology companies like Intel and IBM were front and centre, and willing to engage ever more deeply with brands. 73% of consumers were willing to share their demographic information with retailers in order to improve targeted communications. In the store itself, Macy’s has unveiled Beauty Spot, a digital mirror that lets you try on what you want, what is suggested to you by the mirror, and share your looks with your friends, according to TIME magazine. Also at the conference, Kraft featured a vending machine that featured face-recognition technology, registering your ethnographic details and dispensing samples based on that data.

The possibilities for clothing are significant, too. At the recent Consumer Electronics Show, Microsoft unveiled a prototype digital mirror for retailers. PSFK noted it “relies on the Kinect gaming system and basically allows people to try on clothes before taking their final selection to the dressing room”. Moreover, last month, the e-tailer Gilt Groupe teamed up with GQ magazine to create a men’s high-fashion retail experience in the so-fashionable-it’ll-soon-be-uncool Meatpacking District of New York. The FT has more.

Such movements are part of a burgeoning trend toward blurring the boundaries between digital and bricks-and-mortar retail. But for the latter way of shopping, the problems are immediate. An article in this week’s The Economist referenced a report commissioned by the government in December that claimed “one in three of the nation’s high streets is failing“. Places like Argos, Mothercare and Thorntons plan to close up to one third of their shops. Conversely, the magazine references a survey conducted by Saatchi & Saatchi which detailed 16-29 year olds’ feelings on retail. Apart from enjoying a good shop, “42% said that, if they were to start a small business, it would be on the high street”. This puts a desire to see an epicentre of retail / beating heart of a town against an indolence born of the luxury of being able to shop while in the bathroom. To combat this dilemma of desires, Anne Robinson-lookalike Mary Portas has made several suggestions as shopping czar to the government, including requirements for a “quota of affordable shops”. This idea is pure lunacy. State intervention in market commerce is not a road we want to go down.

While the article offers some hope, detailing the importance of improvements to infrastructure, and making space above retailers into shops again rather than flats, the major threat is from online retailers. Last week, the Financial Times reported solemnly,

“Tesco [will] call a halt on new hypermarkets, believing the internet offers the most profitable future for non-food sales. Retail analysts believe Tesco’s admission marks a watershed moment for high street retail chains. Many have already seen their business models trampled over by the big supermarkets, but now they must follow the leader’s structural shift towards online sales, or face extinction.”

These are dire times for retailers, but things will not improve until they fully embrace the inevitable march of technology, both in their stores, and in people’s homes. With another recession looming, now is not the time to bury one’s head in the sand and hope for the best.

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