Caveat high street: we’re all shopping online now

The IMRG e-tail figures have been one of the few bright spots in online journalism’s ever more desperate quest for feelgood data. Month after month, IMRG has come up with the kind of statistics, from highly credible sources, that make you want to pinch yourself: can things really be so rosy? Wasn’t this sort of optimism supposed to have gone out with the year 2000?

The other convincing thing about IMRG is its anecdotal component: people at the sharp end of e-tail are quoted saying much more than the kind of empty hype we became used to during the dot-com boom.

I called IMRG chief executive James Roper to congratulate him on being a beacon of light, a lonely bearer of the online torch in these downbeat times. As we chatted, I felt like I had been transported back in time a couple of years, such was his enthusiasm and optimism.

In Roper’s opinion, the reason we are now seeing the magic £1bn of online sales a month is quite simple. “It’s a reinvention of self-service. People are taking to online in exactly the same way they took to supermarkets in 1949,” he asserts.

Add to this the fact that the internet is the 21st century’s telephone, says Roper, and we can predict that there will be perhaps two more decades of “basic infrastructure building” followed by years of profoundly changed consumer behaviour.

Unlike the dot-com maniacs, Roper is sober enough not to overdo his bullishness. So, although he believes that online sales will probably double each year for the next few years, he expects them to top out at 15 per cent to 18 per cent of the overall retail pie. That, however, will be dwarfed by the Web’s influence as a pre-purchase research tool, which Roper predicts will influence up to half of all retail sales.

But enough euphoria: back in the present, Roper is less than impressed by the online strategies of many mainstream UK retailers. He warns: “The internet is not an area you can dabble with. Companies such as Dixons should be seriously worried by the e-tail threat: a Sony 29-inch TV is a commodity, bought on price. The barriers to entry in that kind of market are now much lower, thanks to the internet.”

There are, says Roper, many major brands with bad or indifferent online offerings. Consumers are now Web savvy and won’t tolerate poor-quality sites. And it is consumers who are now leading this revolution.

Robert Dwek, editor

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