Opinion

Can bricks and mortar stores survive the internet?

4 min read

16 January 2013

Recounting his own experiences in retail, John Sollars ponders the new "accelerated Darwinism" of life on the high street.

With the recent failures of Jessops and HMV, anybody operating in the retail sphere must be worried about their longevity.

Back in 1982 I owned and operated a small shop front selling CB radios. So, I have a very personal experience of running a retail operation as its niche declined. Eventually I had to close the business and that is really the essence of the problem for Jessops and HMV: their niche is under pressure and is dwindling.  

In both their cases they were coshed by the internet and advances in ways that folks use photography and entertainment. Did anybody expect, back at the end of the 90s and early noughties that MP3 players and downloads would spell doom for “traditional” means of music distribution, vinyl, cassette and CD?

Going back further in time, do you think that in the seventies Olivetti, Remington et al ever thought that the typewriter would be a museum piece in less than thirty years? In my own niche of printer ink, I am very aware that somewhere on the horizon there is a “printer killer” lurking.

Unless you are operating in an area that is not techno-niche – such as food or clothing -then you are vulnerable to market forces. With the speed of change accelerating seemingly by the day (or is that just me feeling like an old man?) the rate of churn in the technology sector is also bound to increase.  

Back in 1965 Intel’s co-founder Andrew Moore predicted that “the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years.” This has been an uncannily accurate forecast, but what it also means is that change is an accelerating force and what is new technology now will, in six years time be trash.

So, how on earth are retailers supposed to cope with this evolution in technology?

Consumers want the latest whizziest gizmo, not one that is a year old (perish the thought). Thinking back to 1971 when Frederick Forsyth wrote The Day of the Jackal, one sentence haunts me still: “The postman came down the street with a bright yellow box of Kodak slides in his hand – hide the unusual in the commonplace.” What change has happened to that industry in the last 40 years and how on earth is any one company expected to keep up with it? Kodak invented digital photography and is now in its death throes; Nokia now markets a smart phone (808 Pureview) with a 41 megapixel camera integrated into it; Jessops had no chance.

So, back to my original question, can bricks and mortar retailers survive on the internet? My personal answer is “yes, they can” but they have to embrace the web and offer a seamless, multi-channel retail experience that meets their customers’ preferred ways of shopping. Even in food retailing, those retailers that can offer home delivery and online ordering are overtaking their fellows that aren’t yet able to compete in that space.

As a retailer, the world we live in is all about the consumer experience and as that becomes much more about being “always on and connected”, we have to embrace the change and drive ourselves even harder to lead from the front. We are living through a period of accelerated Darwinism – survival of the fittest, but only for a very short time!

John Sollars is a serial entrepreneur on his third business, Stinkyink.com.