Every cloud has a silver lining

Perhaps the best that can be said about 2001 is that it will be a duller year. Dullness would, after all, be preferable to some of the wilder conditions suggested by the doom-laden forecasts now being bandied about.

The SADder among us seem ready for a global meltdown triggered by a collapsing US economy, ripping inflation caused by oil prices and incendiary fall-out from the dot-com implosion.

Now it’s true that things are unlikely to be as good as they were, but that’s little reason for apocalyptic alarmism. As economists never tire of telling us, the fundamentals remain good. Consumers are still confident (look at Christmas shopping) if warier than they used to be (see car showrooms, passim). Inflation and interest rates remain remarkably low by historical standards, as does unemployment.

What the coming year would appear to call for, as far as marketers are concerned, is less entrepreneurial exuberance and a little more application and ingenuity. Let’s take the dot-com phenomenon as an example. Headlines over the past six months (not least our own) have been dominated by spectacular failures. These days, in fact, it would be a surprise to find a quoted new media company which has not issued a profits warning. But so what?

True, advertising agencies and television companies – buoyed by last year’s pure-play dot-com budgets – may now encounter more difficulty in fulfilling the back-end of this year’s projections. But that does not spell disaster for the marketing community as a whole. Online retailing is here to stay, and so are the expanded budgets. All that has happened is a change of direction.

Figures recently released by Nielsen//NetRatings in the US paint an interesting picture. They reveal that traditional retailers – Wal-Mart among them – accounted for 11 of the 15 busiest online shopping centres over the Christmas period. Separately, AOL – the largest US Internet service provider – claimed its members had nearly doubled their spend during the period to over &£3bn. Hardly evidence of a phenomenon in terminal tail-spin.

Online connection in the UK is lower, of course, but it can only be a matter of time before it reaches US levels of penetration. Already we have seen “bricks and mortar” retailers such as Woolworths and Domino’s Pizza (whose online strategist, Chris Moore, is featured in this week’s cover story) usefully applying new media lessons to traditional problems. With digital households likely to swell to over 7 million by the end of this year, online retail will doubtless receive an important boost.

Overall, 2001 should be another good year for marketers. It may be a less exciting period of innovation than its predecessor, but the opportunities are there for those who know how to grasp them.

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