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Death of the High Street is much exaggerated

March 2015

There was the usual media fuss last month about how much 2014 Christmas shopping was done online.  If you listened to all of it you might have come to believe that the shops were empty and the high streets desolate throughout December.  Television, especially, always tends to grant internet related news more weight than it usually deserves.

In fact, whilst there was certainly more online Christmas shopping than in 2013, it was probably less than a quarter of the total, and of that, a good (and fast growing) slice was what has become known as “Click and Collect”; that is, items which are ordered online but collected from a local branch of the shop.  Customers clearly like this approach, especially if receiving deliveries at home is difficult.  Retailers love it, as it gives them a chance to offer you a bit more.  In fact, John Lewis has discovered that some people spend as much as three times the value of the item they reserved. Everyone is happy. 

So, let’s accept that whilst it is growing, online shopping is still a modest part of the winter buying orgy that keeps so many shops alive, whatever he television reporters say.

However, it set me to wondering what proportion of my own Christmas shopping was online.  I am an enthusiastic internet user who lives in the middle of nowhere.  The perfect customer - I might even turn out to be some sort of market barometer.

It felt like a lot at the time, but when I did the sums, I actually bought less than about 40% (by value) online, and more than half of that was one purchase (a camera) which was “click and collect”, so doesn’t really count. Certainly I chose it online, but I collected it from a local branch of Jessops; the helpful staff explained the options, and sold me a few extra bits.  I even walked into Waterstones next door and bought a couple of books I had not planned to buy.   One up for the High Street.   

I could not possibly have bought my next biggest purchase online (a modest piece of jewellery); I am hopeless at that sort of thing and I badly needed the advice of the kind lady in a local jewellers.  Another win for the High Street.

So, knock the camera off the list and my total online spend was less than 20%, right in line with the national average.  So where is the growth coming from?

It’s mostly coming from the new ways in which people are using the internet to shop.  Those that track such things are recording big increases in shopping from mobile phones from breakfast to 9:00am, from desktop computers at lunchtime, and from tablets from tea time onwards.

Most interestingly, they have noticed that shopping from mobiles has completely overtaken shopping from desktops at certain times of day.  This may surprise many Oldie readers, who still think of mobile phones as phones, but of course they aren’t, they are small computers.   I recently sat through a fifteen minute demonstration of a new “smartphone”.  It was only at the end that I realised that the demonstrator had not mentioned the ability to make a phone call at all.

So how will this develop?  My own view is that that retailers will eventually embrace the internet as just another way to sell their wares and the small independent traders will increasingly work together on sites like and that provide internet shops for little companies (I recommend both sites to you, incidentally).

So don’t be too quick to believe every high street retailer when they moan that the internet is killing their business; it may simply be that they are just not using it right.