The high street and the 'i-street' may seem like polar opposites - one brick-built, the other click-built. The former needs stores to shop at, the latter just screens to stare at. But as brown boxes arrive at our homes daily; as food comes store-to-door without us even squeezing a loaf; as clothes are unwrapped and the thought becomes not "do I like this?" but "can I be bothered sending it back?" the key question is - can the high street survive this new generation of lazy shoppers?
For the lazy shopper, a smartphone-centred lifestyle and a vast choice of online stores mean that new products can be sourced and ordered within seconds, without a computer; and without any effort. The virtual shopping trolley is constantly available, always has room for more products, and never has a duff wheel.
The trend for customers to shop less with their feet and more with their fingers has hastened the demise of recent high street casualties including Jessops, HMV, Blockbuster and Republic. The collapse of these household names is stark evidence of the fundamental shift in how we buy and what we buy.
According to the British Retail Consortium, while UK retail sales over Christmas 2012 were up 0.3 per cent from December 2011, online sales were up a staggering 17.8 per cent. A key factor in this upswing is that items once thought to be less vulnerable to online shopping are now routinely bought remotely - even 'mum's choice' Marks & Spencers now sell one third of all their dresses online.
But there are limitations to the online environment. As shown by the move away from processed meat products in the wake of the horsemeat crisis, people buy brands they like, know and trust. One way in which retailers can generate positive brand associations is through excellent customer service. Standout customer service is often easier to deliver through personal contact than through a screen or on the phone. Mobile shopping can seem slightly 'faceless', and some customers want to be able to ask questions about products they've spotted on a shop floor, rather than relying purely on internet reviews and descriptions. An online retailer who creates a positive customer experience through its bricks and mortar presence is more likely to attract and retain mobile business.
A new consumer behaviour trend, known as ROPO, is driving a significant proportion of retail sales. ROPO - Research Offline, Purchase Offline - is resulting from the desire of many shoppers to explore buying options using mobile technology before parting with their cash.
Leading shopping centre owner Land Securities has secured an exclusive tie up with Google Product Search which allows customers visiting a shopping centre to see instantly which retailers in the centre sell a product. They can then click and collect, browse and buy or just get inspiration as to what product to select.
This gives customers the option of buying while they're in the shopping centre, perhaps using their mobiles to compare prices or reserve stock, or alternatively to use traditional stores purely as shop windows in advance of a planned purchase.
Using traditional stores as showrooms, not just salerooms, is a solution which informed retailers have been quick to implement. This is easier in some retail sectors than others - for example designer accessories with big mark-ups where the selling environment is plush and luxurious. It's more challenging where the goods being marketed are run-of-the-mill, such as books or DVDs, but it's not impossible, if retailers are committed to creating a pleasant environment which shoppers want to be in.
One obvious example of the 'shop as showcase' is the department store cosmetic hall.
Buying cosmetics is not like buying most other consumer goods. When it comes to makeup, 'try before you buy' is, for many customers, not just a nice to have but a need to have.
Buying the wrong foundation, for example, can be a very expensive mistake, with most aspirational brands' 'skin perfecting' ranges costing at least £20. This might seem like a small investment if the foundation 'does what it says on the tin' by enhancing the complexion. But all too often, choosing too dark a shade can mean the hapless wearer ends up being a walking Ronseal advert - and an orange tide mark is never a good look. It's no surprise that most experienced buyers of makeup follow the time-honoured advice of testing several shades of foundation in-store (and on jawline!) before taking the plunge.
And far from being unique to the health and beauty sector, consumers' desire to see products before committing to buying, and the need for one-to-one interaction, are relevant to all retail sectors.
Maintaining and enhancing this approach in other areas of retail is key to the future of shopping. The high street and the i-street need not be uneasy bedfellows - instead they can be complementary. The lazy shopper may yet be persuaded to shop with their feet as well as with their fingers.Suggest a correction