Internet users will force retail changes

When did you last visit a supermarket or a department store? Probably within the last week – most of us do. But did you find what you wanted the moment you walked in the store? Probably not. Either you knew roughly where the item you wanted would be and you headed off to that part of the store, or you had to look around.

That’s precisely what retailers want. They don’t want you to go straight to what you intend buying. They want you to have to hunt for it and get distracted by all those tempting offers you have to pass by. I remember once in my local Tesco stunning the checkout operator with my quip as she asked for £140. “Gosh,” I said, “and I only came in for cat food.”

But that’s typical of many large store shoppers – the retailers are glad to say. We go in full of intentions to buy just one thing, but come out having bought some others along the way. Beware, for instance the “gondola end”. This is the little bit of shelving at the ends of the aisles in a supermarket. As we turn our trolleys round the corners we cannot help but notice those tempting offers. And guess which items get put in “gondola ends”? The ones with the highest margins. Not only are we tempted, but by falling into the supermarket’s trap we are also boosting their coffers by purchasing higher profit items than from the ordinary shelves.

Without “gondola ends” and without people wandering around their shops, supermarkets and department stores would find a rapid fall in profits. But they are in for a shock.

Thanks to the Internet our attention spans are reducing and we are increasingly expecting “instant” solutions. Web sites rarely get anyone’s attention beyond a second; if we cannot find what we are looking for in an instant, we go away. Online we do not do what we do in a retail shop for instance. We don’t wander around the web site, trying to find what we want and then getting tempted along the way by the web site equivalent of the “gondola end”. No; what we do is have a look – “is it here?” – No! We’re off…!

For the past few years, supermarkets and online retailers have been experimenting with all sorts of devices to try and replicate their offline stores in a web site. Each attempt has failed. What works for Tesco is a massive email marketing campaign that points to specific products – it’s not an invitation to have a look around, rather the email marketing is an invitation to either buy a specific product or ignore it. A friend of mine likens Internet marketing to a simple phrase from rather shady sales people: “Do you wanna buy it or what?”.

In other words, online it’s a one-hit wonder. Buy this or go away. That’s not what traditional retail is like. But as more and more people buy more and more things online, your average High Street shop is going to be faced with lower conversions from existing footfall. People will walk in to a store and if they can’t find what they want right away – they’ll be off, to buy it online.

Far from the way we behave online being influenced by what we have always done offline, it is going to be the other way round. Our offline shopping behaviour is bound to be influenced by our online experience. And if you’re not sure – next time you are in that local supermarket, check your frustration levels if you can’t find what you want; or worse, if they have moved the shelves around – again…!

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