Multi-channel Vision?

In my catch-up from being away, I saw a piece in Retail Week (7 September 2012, p32-34, M&S’s multichannel vision) which I wanted to read and consider at more length.

Years ago, some of us were asked about the effects on retail property of the rise of internet shopping. Estimates of percentage diverted trade of course varied, but it was recognised that as retail moved online so the need for, and the nature of, shops would change – the so-called bricks and clicks revolution. Some in the property industry could not see (or did not want to) that online retailing would catch on to a great extent, but they may have changed their views now.

There can be no doubt about the impact of the internet, and after initial denial and resistance in some quarters, there is now acceptance, and even an embracing of, the internet into/with the store-based model. “Reserve and collect” systems , which have grown phenomenally are one reaction, as is the House of Fraser “online store” in Aberdeen city centre. But is there more that can be done to link store and technology?

The Retail Week feature reports on the new Marks and Spencer store at Cheshire Oaks. I have not seen the store, so the description below is secondhand, but the aim is to offer a test bed for the best of the latest technology in one large (151,000 sq ft) eco-friendly store. It has been 6 years in the planning and making, and so in one sense is “old” M&S, but as Laura Wade-Geary, their executive director of multichannel e-commerce says, “this store has been built with the multi-channel consumer in mind”.

So we get, in addition to a radical store redesign and embedded Plan A environmental build:

  • click and collect
  • browse and order terminals for in-store ordering of products
  • touchscreens for information, visuals and choice
  • free wi-fi
  • technology friendly staff.

So is this about the tech-comfortable consumer being made store-comfortable and the store-comfortable consumer being encouraged by technology? With systems seamlessly blending places with multi-channel is this middle ground combination approach the way forward? Has it gone far enough in parts? Do we need checkouts and terminals or can we do it all on I-pads or via RFID – but maybe these things are a step too far, certainly for some.

Will the future be those who like stores as physical shops go one way and those who like stores as internet go another? Can a physical shop really do dwell and entertainment together with functional and internet? My jury is out on the real meaning and future of multi-channel in physical  shops.

About Leigh Sparks

I am Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, where I research and teach aspects of retailing and retail supply chains, alongside various colleagues. I am Chair of Scotland's Towns Partnership. I am also a Deputy Principal of the University, with responsibility for Education and Students.
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