Roger Williams on the rise of online retail

In 2018 smartphone usage accounted for 52 per cent of all website traffic worldwide

We used to go shopping. It was a pastime in the UK and ranked highly compared with going out for a meal or walking the dog. Now, it is more of a chore than something enjoyed.

Today, people shop online. It is not surprising since social media has replaced, in part, meeting people in the street for a chat.

For me, this all started when teenagers no longer met their date outside WH Smith in Newport. The mobile phone changed that and meeting was made easy. Gone was the embarrassment of being stood-up at Smiths where, if you lingered by the stationery for too long, it became obvious to all your contemporaries what had happened.

Technology moved on quickly from mobile phones to smartphones, from email to Tinder and from girls whose scent and soft hands you knew, or lads whose fierce handshake and beery breath you knew, to those whose text style you were familiar with and could recognise. 

Essays assiduously researched in the library were now copied from the Internet (‘cut and pasted’ in old money) and emailed; not handed in; perhaps not ‘taken in’ and the information not learnt, just its source for future reference – as long as it’s still there.

We used to be a nation of television watchers. 20 years ago, we held the world record for hours watching TV per day. Together with foreign holidays per capita, we led the world. This TV-watching made sense to me. A mentor of mine, an astro-physicist, said that the human brain seeks the broadest channel for information.

We will be more drawn to a picture than words in a book, to visuals rather than speech, and to moving images with sound more than anything. Video games, films and the like present the closest thing to real-life experiences but are providing it in hours, more densely compacted experiences that could not be gained over a single lifetime. We have moved on from repeating stories to each other to books to radio to TV to where we are today: virtual reality.

It is estimated that there will be 2.5 billion mobile phone users in the world this year. Nine out of ten people in the US and one out of two people in China have a mobile phone. Mostly these are smartphones, the penetration of which stands at 85 per cent in the UK. In 2018, 52 per cent of all website traffic worldwide was generated through smartphones.

Smartphones are nearly always with you and their uptake in the UK has now eclipsed the 78 per cent penetration of laptops. These phones are part of our way of life and their impact on retailing is massive. They allow remote access, in high-definition sound and image, to your friends, to your family, your work and your pleasure.

A recent Ofcom report said: “Research by TouchPoints in 2017 found that 64 per cent of adults in Great Britain agreed that the internet was an essential part of their life, up from 54 per cent in 2012. Among under-35s, more than 80 per cent agreed, but the steepest increase was among over-65s, with 36 per cent considering the internet to be essential, up from 22 per cent five years previously.”

The report went on to say that: “88 per cent of adults who use the internet spend an average of 24 hours each week online. Overall, a third of adults said they spend up to 10 hours online each week, and 54 per cent said up to 20 hours. Almost a fifth of adults said they spend more than 40 hours each week online, up from just five per cent of adults in 2007.” 

Records, televisions, SEGA games, Nintendo and even computers are part of a bygone and retro era of technology

It is therefore not surprising that currently, retailing in the UK is undergoing a revolution. Nearly £6 out of £10 of consumer retail spending is now made online; £3 is done using a smartphone. High Street spending is suffering. Department stores are closing. This change in retail spending has been brought about by customers who are more used to interacting with a computer system than face-to-face with an individual. 

These customers have to change their favoured buying habit (statistically, online) when entering some gun dealers’ premises.  It might be a good idea to make the buying experience in gun dealers closer to the customer’s preferred experience as possible. Perhaps retailers need to have an enhanced dialogue with customers, not just face-to-face, but also via their mobile phones. Not only will this attract custom but it should help retain customers too. 

Obviously, a system to capture customers’ telephone numbers and to enable interface with them by phone would help achieve this. Many retailers do this already. For those of you who don’t, consider offering a welcome, such as free WiFi log-in when customers enter your store.

Here, with their permission, you can capture their details by offering a discount coupon for immediate use. For those customers who left without buying, a follow up text and/or email with details and photographs of the two guns that they had difficulty deciding between, or a revised offer for their gun offered in part exchange, would be welcomed and would establish a dialogue. Many shops present similar offerings but, for the future, we all need to accommodate the change in consumer behaviour.

Posting YouTube videos is a tried-and-tested method of marketing products from the gun trade and it works for retailers too. A shop in my town is using Twitter and Facebook, to send images of new stock and send ‘individual’ invitations to see, feel the latest product and have a cup of coffee, a soft sell. It is a question of keeping up with not just what sells but how customers’ method of buying has changed.

Customers are, more and more, going into retail premises to check on a product, its quality, style or fit; pricing it and then going to check online where they can get a better deal. A Mastercard study said that over a quarter of consumers like to go into a store to look at an item before making a high-value buy.

We know that the highly regulated purchase of a firearm brings people into a gun dealer’s premises but there is no reason to rely solely on this when selling unregulated products such as a shooting jacket or walking boots. 

The same Mastercard study said that not even a third are happy with just having the option to complete a transaction in-store. The offer of ‘click and collect’ on your website is a must. Collecting your customer’s digital details – with their consent – can be key to improving your shop’s sales.

Globally, the UK is a leader in online purchases using a mobile telephone. We are lucky to have been born into a Western democracy, full of individuals who can exploit the best in personal technology. 

The gun trade must not rely on laws and regulations to bring consumers into the store and spend. We need to embrace a new generation of consumer who likes to spend online using their mobile phone. Additionally, this opens up the whole world to us and prepares for the current telecom revolution, voice-activated speakers like the Amazon Tap with Alexa. 

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