Does Online Shopping Deliver The Goods?

It's fairly obvious that the Internet is changing everything. For those of us involved in the computing industry, that's no surprise - we're the people driving most of the changes. But it's recently become even more evident just how far-reaching the changes are; driven in part by the global financial crisis and the resulting effect on corporations, businesses, and retailers.

For some while now, software product sales have been dominated by digital download rather than as boxed product. Now that you no longer get proper manuals or documentation in the box (just a CD and a quick-start guide), most people see no advantage in paying for the box. You only need to stroll around a large computer store to see the effects of this. Where there used to be whole shelves full of boxed software, now there's books, accessories, and consumables instead.

And, of course, digital delivery is having a big impact on both the music industry and the wider publishing industry. Just this week Pearson (international publishers of a huge range of newspapers and books) reported that less than half of their income now comes from printed materials; the largest earner is digitally delivered content. And David Levin, chief executive of United Business Media, wrote an article explaining how - in his words - "software has eaten their business". UBM publishes close to 100 magazines and periodicals, but printed versions now account for only about five percent of their earnings.

David also acknowledges how the Internet is changing another area of commerce, namely retailing. OK, so it's been obvious for many years that selling over the Internet was a massive opportunity for many, and the annual growth in online purchasing is quite remarkable. Available figures vary, but increases of around fifteen percent a year seems to be realistic, despite recession in many countries and regions.

One effect of the continuing move away from traditional retailing must be a decrease in the number of bricks and mortar retail outlets, and personal experience is already demonstrating this. For example, a friend has been investigating buying an astronomical telescope, and I've been helping to gather information about the types available and the prices. However, while I'm quite happy buying computers online, mainly because I know enough about them to make the appropriate judgments on quality and features, I know nothing about telescopes.

My initial suggestion was to visit and buy from a knowledgeable retailer who can explain the technicalities, has comprehensive varied stock of different types, and where you can try them out to make a decision on features and price. However, it appears that there is no such shop within a reasonable travelling distance. Yes, I know that we live out in the country and far from London; and maybe we didn't find any because we were just searching for them on the Internet. Mind you, even a printed trade directory (Yellow Pages) fails to list any. In the end my friend joined a local astronomical society to get advice from like-minded but expert stargazers, and then bought online from a specialist supplier.

I suppose you could argue that it's a chicken and egg situation; buying online kills off local retailers, but lack of local retailers drives sales online. Yet my daily purchasing activities are probably partly to blame for this move away from traditional purchasing. There's rarely a week goes by when I don't receive a delivery from Amazon; it's somehow managed to worm its way into my life so that almost anything I need initially prompts a search in the UK online store.

So when I needed a one metre length of ribbed tubing to repair my garden fishpond pump I didn't bother driving six miles to the local aquatic store, but had it delivered for less than the cost of the petrol I'd use getting there. And, of course, there's no guarantee they'd have the diameter I needed when I got there anyway. And in addition to the usual selection of books and videos, I've recently used Amazon to buy food for my fish and the garden bird feeders, networking cables and peripherals, car accessories, batteries and electrical items, a kitchen waste bin, phone accessories, birthday presents, and numerous other items.

In fact, I suspect the only time that physical rather than virtual shopping occurs at our house is when my wife buys groceries (or cars). Whereas I'd probably be tempted to take advantage of Internet grocery shopping - like most other people on our street judging from the number of different delivery vans that appear every day - she resolutely insists on the traditional "push a shopping trolley and feel the goods" experience.

Though, considering the hugely varying list of Amazon associates that actually deliver all the goods I order online, it looks like I'm supporting a whole network of suppliers all around the country. Many, I suspect, work from a back bedroom, a lock-up garage, or some faceless unit somewhere on a back street industrial estate. However, what is heartening is that an increasing number appear to be actual bricks and mortar shops that are extending their reach and turnover through online sales. Perhaps this is the saving grace that might allow at least a proportion of retailers to maintain a High Street premises. Perhaps Amazon should consider categorizing their associates when displaying products they sell so that I can choose to support local retailers.

Even if they are somebody else's local retailers, because there are none left where I live...

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