Online Gold Rush
Retail has long been the key touch point between goods manufacturers and end consumers. So it is no surprise that the sector has been vibrant and innovative, bringing such inventions to the market as: layaways; self service shopping; concept stores, in-store bakeries, factory outlet centres, loyalty cards; pop-up shops, airport retailing - even scuba diving in retail malls.
However, looking ahead, the next generation of visible innovation will come mainly from online retail initiatives - and many of these will be entirely new entrants to retail. In fact, over the next 5 years, existing retailers will find themselves increasingly asking the question: who stole my lunch? And the answer will be a disparate group of digital natives who see selling directly to consumers as a get-rich- quick gold mine. And these entrepreneurs will grow without paying rent to anyone. Despite their lack of retail experience, these new retail entrepreneurs have youthful enthusiasm on their side plus a revolutionary platform (i.e. the web) which has radically lowered entry barriers and increased consumer convenience.
This online gold rush is, of course, in full swing today but we are just in the foothills of what will occur; the 2020 retail landscape will look very different from a consumer's perspective.
Take the online pharmacy. Regulations today are keeping this movement at bay but with escalating healthcare costs, few governments will stand in the way of 'progress' for too much longer. With an ageing population less able to collect their prescriptions, with doctors soon being able to issue repeat prescriptions electronically and with many consumers happy to order vitamins and Viagra online, a tsunami will hit the independent pharmacies by the end of the decade to come. Today's online pharmacies - for example, pharmacy2u.co.uk, infar.com and medix24.com - are pioneers but expect a rush of new entrants to this profitable sector over the next few years.
Whilst regulations will save independent pharmacies for a while longer, some independents will feel the cold winds of change blowing very strongly over the next three years. Legacy formats like independent bookshops and music stores cannot survive in their current positioning. Instead, they will become cottage businesses selling an attitude and an approach to an afternoon. Bookshops were pleasant, dusty places before transactions became all important, and they will have to return to this experiential focus.
Given the increasing number of online entrants, the last decade has seen owners and occupiers react in one of three ways to e-commerce and web-based marketing.
1. Perceive online as a potential competitor - but a small, containable one
2. See online as another channel, one to be integrated into a multi-channel trading strategy
3. Use the communication possibilities of the internet in an integrated multi-media strategy.
In other words, online has been either ignored, or more recently, blended with existing operations to get 'the best of both worlds'. However, possibly because of the legacy of bricks and mortar, few retailers have really positioned to launch entire new businesses and business models on the internet.
The real retail innovation on the internet has come from elsewhere. In fact, it can be argued that the real innovation anywhere has come from online.
Take e Bay (eBay.com) and their revolution in: a) auction selling b) accessing the second hand market c) taking retail global d) introducing safe payment systems. Fluctuating fortunes mean they have lost ground recently but fully intend to rebound through new initiatives such as their newly launched fashion micro site selling trendy new clothing at deep discounts using 'flash' sales techniques. e Bay are also experimenting with an online outlet mall, have signed exclusive fashion deals with designers like Narciso Rodriguez and are improving the whole site experience. e Bay sold $7.1 bn of clothing in 2009 and has access to 90 million active buyers and sellers.
Private sales models are also booming. Gilt's (Gilt.com) model requires personal sign up and gives access to "luxury brands, hand-selected styles and members-only prices". The offer changes frequently, each sale lasting 36 hours and can be 70% off retail prices. They have already launched an app for the new ipad to "significantly transform e-commerce at Gilt by injecting a sense of entertainment and competition into the online shopping experience". Gilt grew sixfold in 2009 and is on track for $500million in 2010. The company launched in 2008.
Polyvore (polyvore.com) is part social network, part designer club. It aggregates clothing and accessories from many different brands online: a sort of online transactional department store. The twist is that customers compose their own looks and styles dragging and dropping together merchandise they prefer. Others are then encouraged to vote on their favourite looks - and indeed buy into the look they prefer. This site creates a community feel, an interactive shopping setting and a good way to pick up on hot trends and ideas. Consumers are invited to be creative and have fun. Suddenly, fashion is becoming democratised - and moving away from the autocratic cat-walks.
Polyvore have 1.5 million registered users and 200,000 'creators'. Again, Polyvore is the initiative of non-retailers being started by a bunch of ex-Yahoo employees in 2007.
And so it goes on. Once again, the point being that the real innovation in retail is happening now, it's happening online and it's being led by 'non-retailers'. iTunes (apple.com) is dominant in music sales and Amazon (amazon.com) conquers all before it in book sales. 'Old economy' retailers like Virgin Megastore and Waterstones were late to launch online and essentially have under performed.
So what of the next ten years? We will see more of the same; the barriers for entry in the retailing industry have never been lower. We will witness raging innovation in retail - a real gold rush where entrepreneurs go from zeros to heroes in a matter of months. In the online world, 6 months is a really long time - and time enough to make a fortune. We will see innovation in format, in channel, in delivery, in social retail, in retail-as-game, in sales techniques, in payment systems, in returns policies. In the future, we will see more of:
- private selling (e.g. ruelala.com)
- peer-to-peer selling (e.g.leboncoin.fr)
- flash sales (e.g. nakedwines.com)
- auctions (e.g. swoopo.co.uk) and blind auctions (e.g. auctionsforacause.com)
- mutual sites (e.g. thewinesociety.com)
- augmented reality retail sites (e.g. zugara.com)
- rental sites (e.g. bagborroworsteal.com)
- luxury sites (e.g. netaporter.com)
- trading sites - where consumers buy wholesale and sell on retail (e.g.
- swapping sites (e.g. whatsmineisyours.com) - grouped buying (e.g. groupon.com) - free sites (e.g. limewire.com) - virtual stores (e.g. polyvore.com)
And we will see more and more co-production, involving consumers in the whole process, from design, through selection to selling and beyond. For example, Made.com showcases furniture designs and holds public votes. Only the most popular designs go into production and voters receive discounts for helping select. In true win-win style, consumers are involved and get products they want; new designers get showcased; the manufacturer has no unsold inventory, retailers sell exactly to order. And once again, the specialists in this supply-chain revolution come from.online.
In the future, creativity will continue to come from start-ups not incumbents. Perhaps this is the way it always happens. Future electrical cars are as or more likely to come from battery makers as automotive companies. Alternative energy companies like Vestas Wind Systems and RePower are more likely to dominate renewable energy, than Shell or BP. When the platform changes, leadership changes. Insiders become outsiders and new opportunities abound.
Will any old-World players match the business flair of these upstarts? Looking ahead, anything is possible, but it will require true iconoclasm at the very top of a retail enterprise and a new generation of employees. For a start, retailers should be recruiting as many smart 'digital native' Gen Yers as they can lay their hands on and putting them in pivotal positions (hint: not in the warehouse).
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