The internet retail revolution has taken a surprising turn – in which independent store owners can play a happy and prosperous role
How late did you leave your Christmas shopping? I thought I was cutting it fine with some emergency Terry’s chocolate oranges for my children’s stockings, bought just after lunch on Christmas Eve.
But one man picked up his final Christmas parcel – some lingerie for his wife – at 10.43pm at the Esso service station in Hanworth, Middlesex. It was hardly the obvious place to buy a bra and pants set, let alone en route to midnight mass.
But the unknown customer was not buying, merely collecting something he had already purchased on the internet. He is one of many millions of people who have embraced “click and collect”. It is a terrible industry buzz word.
But this week, as the country’s biggest retailers report their trading results over Christmas, it is becoming clear that “click and collect” holds the secret to the future of the high street. The concept is very simple and very counter-intuitive. You, the customer, buy something online.
Then, rather than wait for the postman to ring the doorbell three days later, you go to the shop and collect it yourself. Delivery charges are generally cheaper than by post, or even waived. Internet shopping was meant to revolutionise how we bought things. Our sitting room would become the new retail park, our kitchen the new checkout till. Cars would be abandoned, the world would become an easier, happier place. But it didn’t work out like that. Mostly because Royal Mail, DHL, and the other delivery services were not up to scratch. Customers were bedevilled by the dreaded “Sorry, you were out” cards, missed deliveries and crashed websites.
A report at the weekend suggested that during December, at least 225,000 parcels each day failed to arrive when promised. Another, from Which?, found that 60 per cent of people shopping online last year had problems with delivery. Which is where click and collect comes in. Neil Saunders, managing director of Conlumino, a retail consultancy firm, says: “The reason click and collect took off over Christmas was because it solves the age-old problem of the ‘final mile’ of delivery.
People just don’t like waiting in for deliveries, but most are happy to pick up from their local high street.” Illogical as it sounds, most shoppers would actually prefer to incur the cost and hassle of going into town and picking up the pair of trousers or food blender than wait at home or visit the shop, unsure that it will be in stock. Among click and collect’s attractions is the certainty that your item will actually be there, waiting for you. The idea has been around for a while but has only really taken hold in recent months.
Both John Lewis and Next, the country’s second biggest fashion chain, have reported pretty good Christmas business – and both have hailed click and collect as the reason. Next said online sales rocketed by 11.2 per cent, while trading in its shops fell slightly. And those companies without a slick click and collect service, such as Marks & Spencer, which has only recently embraced the phenomenon, are thought to have had a less sparkling Christmas.
For John Lewis the service has turned out to be a godsend. The company has only about 40 stores, but click and collect allows customers to pick up any items bought from the John Lewis website from its sister company, Waitrose. This adds 300 outlets. As I was picking up a parcel at John Lewis yesterday, I bumped into Fiona Mehta, from Harrow, who was collecting four baking trays and a table cloth. “I much prefer to shop from the comfort of my sitting room, avoiding the crowds,” she told me. “I’ve got more time to browse. But I work, so I can’t wait at home for the delivery. This just makes sense.” But the greatest innovation has been developed by online-only shops. They have been forced to tie up with a third party.
The biggest is Collect+, which has signed up 5,000 convenience and corner shops, and – in return for a small fee – persuaded them to become collection points for a raft of retailers, from House of Fraser, Boden and Oasis to Asos, Amazon and eBay. Sophie Albizua, co-founder of eNova Partnership, which advises retailers, said: “Suddenly, the consumers can be in a tiny market town, but have access to the complete range from their favourite clothes shops or department stores at the end of their road.” An added benefit is that the opening times of corner shops tend to be far longer than department stores.
They are even longer at 24-hour garages, many of which are also signed up to the system, which explains that late lingerie collection on Christmas Eve.The system uses PayPoint terminals, the yellow scanners in thousands of corner shops that are used for phone top-ups and gas bills. All the customer has to do is give the shopkeeper a code, sent by text or email, and they can pick up their goods. The other key advantage to the corner-shop model is that the customer has somewhere they can easily return items that they don’t like. For many it is in fact a case of click, collect, try on and take back. The earliest return after the present-opening frenzy was made at 7.38am on Christmas Day, at the Spar store in Airth, Stirlingshire.
Alas, history does not record how dire the jumper or celebrity biography was to justify such an early trip. Amazon has gone a step further and started installing lockers – you unlock them using a code sent to your phone – in some shopping centres and in Co-op supermarkets. In total, there are 9,000 Amazon lockers around the country and the website insists that they are proving a success, though some analysts are dubious.
Of course, the phenomenon is far from perfect, and there are some awkward details to be ironed out. John Lewis and Marks & Spencer still insist that you wait until the afternoon of the following day before you can pick up shopping, while Next allows you to pick things up the morning after you’ve ordered them. Also, sometimes the queue to pick up deliveries is as long as the queue at the tills. N
evertheless, Mark Lewis, who runs Collect+, waxes lyrically about how many corner shops are buzzing from all the extra people coming into their stores, many of whom add an extra pint of milk or loaf of bread to their basket. “It brings some of the benefits of online shopping back into the hands of independent traders,” he says. It seems that a full decade after broadband arrived in Britain, internet shoppers are finally getting the sort of service and convenience they were always promised.
About time too.