Monday, 26 May 2008

Virtual High Street - Part 2 - Should you worry about it?

High street retailers generally have strong brand recognition due to their ubiquity, but little brand loyalty and/or social kudos attached to their branding. As users, we don’t use the high street because we particularly care which brands are available to us, but simply because it is convenient to have a bunch of retailers all within close walking distance to each other. I don’t really care whether my PC comes from PC World, or Currys, or Dixons, or John Lewis.

If I’m happy with the prices on offer, and if any one of them is not on my particular high street, there’s no chance at all that I’ll explicitly find another high street with that particular brand. In other words, once off the physical high street and into the world of online ordering and postal delivery, most users couldn’t care less who sells them the product they want, as long as the price and service are acceptable, and the item on arrival does what it’s supposed to do.

Products are different too. The majority are about the experience, like luxury items, fashion, jewellery, sports goods and clothing; while others are about form and functionality only like electronics or toys; or more about differentiated content like financial products, holidays, books and music; or finally, homogenously consistent like daily food stuffs.

In the offline retail world, the latter three categories form only a small part of the high street, but these are really the ones that successfully transfer online, because web browsing and delivery increases convenience without increasing risk of dissatisfaction. I wouldn’t browse for and buy clothes online – how do I know what they’re going to look like on me? I wouldn’t browse for and buy shoes online – how do I know if they’re going to fit or be comfortable? I wouldn't even browse for and buy a tennis racket online – how do I know if it will feel right in my hand? For products like this, I might like to see what’s available through online channels before heading out to visit the relevant shops, but only as a way of minimising the amount of time I spend shopping. Conversely I might identify the product offline and then look for a bargain online, but that wouldn't be limited to high street retailers and is thus another story unrelated to this post.

Of course people do use the internet to buy things, and a significant enough proportion use the web to buy luxury retail goods to make it cost-beneficial for brands to supplement their offline offering with a virtual store. But here’s the caveat. While the term is clearly here to stay, in reality I believe there is no virtual high street where web users conveniently congregate. It is actually faster for most people to simply head down to and walk around the shops, than to browse through the same number of stores online, because the online browsing experience is significantly more linear and time consuming than stepping into a store and glancing around for items of interest.

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