‘It’s too long and too big to grip,’ said my wife. So the search was on for a new hairdryer. (Needless to say, I’d purchased the unsatisfactory beauty product on an unadvised solo shopping expedition.) You may think I would find shopping something of a busman’s holiday but I don’t. I’ve always been interested in how businesses try to sell me things, ever since I was a teenager and read The Hidden Persuaders, which recently celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of its publication.
So, first we searched online. These days we retailers are always aware of the internet lurking in the background, ready to trap our customers in its world wide web. I can’t complain because online sales now account for a third of the turnover of Your Life Your Style and are growing at over 50% a year. By contrast, our Winchester shop sales are growing at around 10%.
The problem for all of us who sell online is that prices are very keen. I was always taught never to compete on price because it’s a race to the lowest profit margin which only one business, the one with the deepest pockets, can win while the rest go bust. It’s a wonder high street shops survive. I can buy a set of inks for my printer for £21 online so why would I pay twice as much to buy them from W H Smith in the High Street? Only because I ignored the warnings that I was about to run out of ink and needed to get more straightaway, I guess.
One advantage of shopping in person is that you can touch the product. You’ll remember grip was important in the case of the hairdryer so we decided we had better have a look in Winchester before deciding. All high streets are gradually being taken over by businesses that supply services not available online like coffee shops and beauty treatments so it’s not so easy nowadays to find an electrical retailer. We went into Robert Dyas.
Having identified the hairdryer we wanted, we could have bought it online, except Dyas had a special offer. Not only a sale offer but we also had one of their ‘Come back on Friday and get 10% off’ offers. In making this offer, they must have calculated that the loss in margin will be more than made up for by the increased frequency of the customers’ visits. So we bought the hairdryer.
At least it was a genuine offer, unlike all the ‘Buy One Get One Free’ nonsense, designed to make us think we’re getting a bargain (because ‘free’ is the most emotive word an advertiser can use) when really the discounts are built into the price. Do they think we’re stupid? Well, in some European countries, the answer is ‘yes’, because this practice is outlawed and retailers have to state the price of each item.
So we bought a new hairdryer from an actual bricks-and-mortar shop but there’s no question in mind that online shopping will destroy the high street unless something drastic happens. A reduction in rents and rates to realistic levels would help shopkeepers match online prices.
Retailers themselves can also help themselves by becoming more inventive. ‘Buy online and collect instore’ is growing. Another idea is to stock exclusive products, like a handcrafted items or an own brands, or something that needs to be seen and touched. (For example, you wouldn’t know from seeing a photo online just how incredibly soft our faux fur slippers are.) Most important of all, offering knowledgeable, helpful, friendly service is key, because no online business can match a friendly greeting and a genuine interest in satisfying your shopping needs. Sadly many high street shops can’t either.