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Business

Bricks and mortar: hardier than you think

I was in town the other day and I noted quite a few boarded-up premises. I wondered if the winds of recession were still blowing or if the growth of e-commerce was simply spelling the death of bricks-and-mortar retailing.
Written by Darren Greenwood, Contributor on

I was in town the other day and I noted quite a few boarded-up premises. I wondered if the winds of recession were still blowing or if the growth of e-commerce was simply spelling the death of bricks-and-mortar retailing.

Such a prospect was reinforced by one of the closed premises having a sign in its window to say the business was still trading via its website!

One of the staffers at Alcatel-Lucent in Wellington this week gave a prediction that within 10 years, he expected all "personal commerce" would be done online.

"The storefront will be a window-shopping experience where we will touch and see the products," he explained.

"However, we will transact the purchase from the comfort of the couch over the internet — yes, the internet will still be there — more than likely via an e-bidding process to get the lowest price."

The US faces similar issues and there are those with grave concerns.

They fear the death of smaller, local retailers, as it would no longer be economic to trade if shoppers just look for price, which would typically mean purchasing from the big boys who buy in bulk and can pass on the savings.

If you followed that reasoning further, the "death of the high street" may also come about because any "traditional" retailing can now take place on a cheaper industrial estate.

However, shopping is not so much a chore, but increasingly a leisure activity, something that many people actually enjoy; and sitting on a couch is not the same as going out to the mall or the high street.

Furthermore, there's nothing like the impulse buy, especially if something is on sale. Sometimes it's just too long to wait until the product can be delivered. So we can just look online before we go shopping to see where an item is cheapest and then pick up and pay for it in-store.

And though I increasingly see supermarket delivery vans on the roads, I doubt anything would stop me from pushing my trolley around the aisles. Surely, that is more time efficient than wading through web page after web page, and don't you prefer picking your own meat and veg?

Other retailers would just have to compete on what online cannot offer: good personal service, or perhaps offering something specialised and different that is unavailable online.

I accept that it would become increasingly tough in the mall and on the high street, that there would be many closures, especially as online increases its market share. I note the near disappearance of video rental stores, which were all the rage 20 or so years ago. Now, instead people have cable TV, they can have video-on-demand, or there are those DVD clubs where unlimited DVDs are available for a fixed monthly fee, all sent through the post.

Yet, despite changes like this, bricks-and-mortar retailing will survive. The street markets that have existed in some countries for centuries will also survive. Look how farmers' markets have appeared and grown in recent years! Did anybody expect that?

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