Friday, June 09, 2006

The Coming Triumph of Click-and-Shop?

Is the warning I first heard in the early 1980s--that those investing in "bricks and mortar" venues for shopping, i.e. stores, shops and shopping malls--were going to lose their proverbial shirts, finally coming true? The Boston Globe seems to think so.:

Barbra Streisand notwithstanding, people who need people seem to be a dwindling population. Online sales are soaring. The Internet, once a forbidding terra incognita, is now a routine destination for millions of shoppers. New research shows that customers now make more than three times as many purchases online as they did five years ago; Americans are projected to spend more than $200 billion online this year, double the amount spent three years ago. The bottom line is that the once-social experience of shopping is steadily being transformed into a solitary exercise of point-and-click.

What's interesting about the story is that it attributes the change not only to online's convenience but to the retailers who have gone towards "low prices" and no service, not only in the Wal-Mart sector but in others as well:

``As far as human interaction goes, it's getting less and less in most establishments anyway," said Karlin, noting that many grocery stores encourage shoppers to use self-checkout lanes. ``You have to fend for yourself. Unless it's a really high-end store, I find the human interaction is not something I necessarily miss."

There is a kind of vicious circle at work, when retailers try to increase profit margins with cutting costs by paying their people less, encouraging employee turnover, and not investing in training or in customer service. As shoppers are turned off by non-existent service, clerks who know nothing about the merchandise and are as likely to be loudly talking to each other about their private lives as in actively waiting on people, the stores lose more money, and cut back service again.

Factor in traffic problems, and malls and stores that cut costs by skimping on upkeep and refurbishing, and the shopping experience becomes more of a grim chore than a pleasure.

Add to that some of the particular advantages of at least some online shopping, such as customer feedback and evaluations of products. This is not only helpful in making a choice, it has that missing social aspect as well, when you hear specific stories about how other people bought an item, how they used it, what happened to it, how they liked it, etc. This is still something you can possibly experience in a real store, but it's more happenstance. Then again, happenstance is still one of the reasons people do leave their keyboards and go out to the mall. And thanks to wifi and Internet-ready cellphones and Blackberries, they can always take the wired connection with them.

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