Oh my God, we've killed the high street!

The great Internet shopping migration

The high street is looking very different these days. The stores I’ve grown up with, or got used to seeing on practically every high street or in any given shopping centre are disappearing at an alarming rate, apparently all victims of an evolution of a society of bargain-hunting Internet shoppers. Myself included.

Of course you could argue that these businesses should have seen the problem coming and responded much sooner than they did, it’s not as though Amazon, Ebay and the like are particularly new in the retail landscape. But maybe these brands hoped to protect their staff by holding out, waiting to see if the tide would turn, but once they’re on the downward slope I guess it’s just too difficult to find the finances to react quickly enough when they start to slide.

So with the continuing shift towards streaming on-demand music and movies, download-only (and crowd-funded) games, e-books, mail order or online auction houses and more recently still, 3D printing technology, where does that leave the remaining iconic high street brands?

And some of those that are left don’t seem to be doing so well when it comes to upping their game in order to compete with the online giants. I recently experienced WH Smith’s attempt at an online ordering service but everything downstream of the actual ordering process (which was average to begin with) just got worse. Store staff didn’t know how to interact with the online section of their business, they couldn’t tell me when my order was going to arrive, they couldn’t supply from store stock and replenish from the online delivery (unless I paid for the items again – which I had to do in the end), and they couldn’t cancel the online order. And neither could I it turned out – at least not without emailing the online support people and explaining the whole saga to them at least twice. However, once they had received and understood my predicament they did sort it out quickly, but by then my confidence in them was (and is) about as low as it could be. So I probably won’t try that again, which is a real shame because they might just iron out these wrinkles and develop a robust online-to-store solution, but I’ll never know until someone tells me they had a much better experience.

The Post Office could also learn a thing or two from Amazon. I recently discovered the joy (and that’s not really much of an exaggeration) of the automated drop-off point that Amazon installed in a local shopping centre. This thing is fantastic. I can order from Amazon, and they’ll pop my item(s) into a locker that is accessible by a unique collection code that they email me when the item has been deposited. I can then drop by and pick it up whenever it suits me, as long as the centre is open – which is generally between 08:00 and 21:00 weekdays, and all weekend. How much better is that than queuing in the rain on a Saturday morning before 12:00, maybe almost a full week after the item you wanted was substituted with a “while you were out” card?!

Anyway, this all makes the skeptical half of my mind wonder, what will the landscape look like in the future? Cinemas seem to be holding out so far. But even there, the ongoing reduction in prices of large-format TVs offering outstanding high definition (and lately 3D) picture and sound quality, and with huge data storage capacity and interactive services built-in, surely it won’t be long before the likes of Odeon, Vue etc. are feeling the pinch too?

But what will the new generation of smart shoppers and consumers of all things digital and non-tangible, do when we find for reasons natural or artificial that the infrastructures we’ve come to depend on are suddenly and irrevocably removed? Will it be like the scene in Surrogates when people begin shuffling into the street again after their preferred virtual existence is shattered by a total meltdown of the technology, and for the first time in a long time, look at what’s really out there for them. And will they subsequently be disappointed that they’ve let everything disappear from under them?

Where might it all end? Presumably there will always be a subset of society that does not have or want access to the Internet, mobile devices or whatever ubiquitous technology that the rest of us find ourselves enjoying / using / expecting without question. The separation of “haves” and “have-nots” whether by choice or circumstance will become ever greater.

In the meantime, the next version of (insert thing here) will be waiting just around the corner for us, ready to blow our minds. Again.


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