Sunday, 25 May 2008

Virtual High Street - Part 1 - What is it?

With high street brands finally looking to leverage online marketing and ecommerce channels, someone somewhere looking for a neat little blanket phrase for retail on the web, and unable to stop thinking in terms of the tangible and familiar, seems to have coined the term “Virtual High Street”. So here we have it - the next big topic for discussion.

This label is great for readers of business news everywhere, and of course for all those big retail brands that are keen to think of the web like some kind of well defined, tangible place, where shoppers will conveniently head to on a Saturday to do their browsing and shopping like they always used to. The “Virtual High Street” is a clever phrase because it inherently suggests a simple transference of existing market share and branding onto the web in line with current offline positioning, but in fact has no explicit definition.

The web has a vast number of companies marketing and selling their products, from tiny, niche players to vast websites selling everything imaginable. There are companies like Amazon that exist only in the virtual world, with brand recognition that would make an offline retailer sweat; others that combine online selling with offline catalogue marketing like; little niche players that do something unique, or market some specific product in detail; and now finally traditional real world retailers that are dipping their toes in the virtual world. This last shift is suddenly making the offline business world sit up and start analysing and categorising the online retail space, and the most convenient way to do this is to imagine that there is some kind of virtual high street – a regularly walked path that users take while browsing the web.

The reality of course is that your average web user, who is just about getting comfortable with broadband and online security, and whose experience of the web has always been driven by search engines, would be very surprised to be told that the web isn’t in fact an open, limitless, product-oriented front; but simply another branded avenue designed for visiting the shops.

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