- 11 Nov 08, 08:29 GMT
I heard something shocking the other night when I visited some friends. As their teenage daughter set out on a dark evening, she explained where she was heading: "I'm going Westfield, innit." It was not her mangling of the English language that shocked me - that'll be familiar to anyone with teenage children - but the fact that she was heading to a new shopping mall, Westfield. Why on earth was someone of her generation bothering with a visit to a real world shop, rather than opening her laptop and going online for a little light retail therapy?
By now, according to the internet visionairies of the late 90s, the high streets should be deserted, full of boarded-up shops, with the odd piece of tumbleweed blowing past. Back then, it was assumed that online retailing would soon triumph over traditional stores. A combination of convenience and the lower prices that came from operating without all those shop-fittings would do for the High Street.
Of course it didn't work out like that. Amongst the many casualties of the dotcom crash were all sorts of fancy etailers, from boo.com to clickmango, which over-estimated the public's appetite for online shopping and shoppers' patience when asked to wait in line for a shiny website to load on a dial-up connection.
But now could a recession accelerate the death of the High Street and the triumph of online shopping? The British Retail Consortium - which has always been a bit sniffy about the impact of the internet - has just published its first set of online shopping figures, alongside its regular survey of the High Street. It shows that, while sales fell on the High Street for the first time since 2005, online sales rose by more than 16%. The BRC is keen to stress that online only accounts for about 4% of total retail sales and says online sales growth "looks eye-watering but don't run away with the idea that the internet is 'killing the High Street'".
And it's true that online retailers still look puny compared to the High Street names. This week I visited a firm I've watched closely for the last decade, the online gadget retailer Firebox.com. Back in 2000, two years after its birth, this business just about survived the dotcom collapse. It was fortunate enough to have grown modestly in the early years, with a handful of staff and a small office where everyone helped in getting the orders out. In 2003 it made its first profit - something that has still eluded a number of online retailers - and its steady growth has continued. Now it has a big warehouse on a Croydon industrial estate, and is cautiously optimistic about Chrismas. But this is still a small business, with just 50 permanent employees. Those dotcom dreams of taking over the world have been replaced by more modest ambitions.
But firms like this, with smaller overheads than their High Street rivals, may have a better chance of surviving a deep recession than some of the big retail names. Shops selling electronic goods, books and music will find it ever harder to compete. The economics of "the long tail", where web operators can make money by offering a vast selection of goods that no single store can acommodate, may now prove irresistible.
So the internet may burrow deeper holes into the High Street, but it won't kill it. A website cannot replace the social experience of shopping. And without all those shiny new shopping malls, where would teenagers have to hang out? Innit?
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