High Street 2020: Apple stores and glorified post offices

Stephanie Clifford of the New York Times reports on the growing trend of retailers using their brick-and-mortar stores to gain an advantage over online-only shops like Amazon, taking advantage of easier delivery, more comforting payment mechanisms, and the ability to browse:

In April, Walmart began allowing shoppers to order merchandise online and pay for it with cash at a store when they picked it up.

Even without the cash option, in the six years since Walmart has allowed online items to be picked up in stores, customer demand has been high. More than half of the sales from Walmart.com are now picked up at Walmart stores, Mr. Anderson said.

With the cash option, Walmart was trying to appeal to customers who did not have bank accounts or credit cards. Walmart says the majority of in-store purchases are made with cash or debit cards, and that about 15 percent are made with credit cards.

Retailers have varying motivations for doing this. Clifford discusses the Container Store, an American chain that sells containers (brand simplicity, there):

The Container Store has also been pushing a drive-through service, a reflection of its altered approach to online shopping. Initially, executives viewed the pick-up-in-store feature as a way to draw consumers into stores and encourage customers to buy more. Now, they would rather close the deal on an online order as soon as possible so shoppers do not go elsewhere or forgo the merchandise altogether.

The piece ends with Alison Jatlow Levy, a retail consultant at management consultants Kurt Salmon predicting a convergence, with physical stores moving more and more towards a "showroom" model, and online-only retailers opening stores for the same purpose.

That may be the case in the medium-term, as the two styles of retailing meet at an equilibrium, but it seems unlikely to last. A physical location is a tremendous fixed cost to run, and while Clifford gives many stories of tangential benefits from doing so, none of them seem game-changing. If a business already have a chain of stores and a website, merging the two in the many ways described seems like a no-brainer. But if it doesn't, it's hard to see how the bottom line would actually be affected in any way but negatively.

What seems more likely is that as many of the benefits which can be abstracted from the cost of running a shop will be. As Felix Salmon points out, there are advantages to retailers in being able to take cash payments, even for online orders, and having somewhere to ship bulky goods for collection seems to be popular as well. But both of those things require little more than a posh version of the Post Office; somewhere which can handle the more methodical side of the transaction for a number of businesses at once. And such companies already exist.

All that would leave is the showroom aspect of the physical store. Can any company gain enough extra sales through physical viewing of items to make up for the extraordinary increase in cost? There are probably a few categories where the answer is yes.

The most obvious is products that are already sold in showrooms due to the high cost of the goods: cars, boats, motorbikes and so on. Things which people really need to see and touch before buying, and which are so valuable that a single sale can make a day. There's a second advantage as well, which is that cars are so bulky that the showroom essentially doubles as the warehouse. A car retailer which decided to move online only would still need to have physical premises almost as large, just not in quite as expensive a location.

Clothes are the other clear winners. People still really like being able to try on things before they buy. But the problem for many retailers is that you can go to, say, Office to try on some shoes, then buy it from a cheaper retailer online. Office loses a sale, but still pays for the advertising.

The solution to that is retailers like Apple. Famously, the company doesn't care if people go into their shops purely to use them for the free internet; their aim is to get as many people using Macs, iPads and so on as possible. That doesn't mean that it isn't relentlessly sales focused – it is – but if, at the end of a trip to an Apple store, you go home and buy a MacBook from Amazon, it still gets the sale. Apple stores are just as much about advertising as retail.

It doesn't paint a particularly rosy picture for the high street of the future – lots of high-end, single-brand stores peppered with glorified post offices – but it's probably better than the alternative thesis, where everything becomes a coffee shop.

A Meerkat posts a letter. This definitely relates to the content of the article. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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What Charles Windsor’s garden reveals about the future of the British monarchy

As an open-minded republican, two things struck me. 

First we are told that the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has lost his battle for a “soft” Brexit. In a joint article, he and the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, the hardest of the ministerial Brexiteers, seem to agree that the UK will leave the European customs union in 2019. Then we get a reverse ferret. Hammond will go for a softish Brexit, after all. A government paper states that the UK will seek a “temporary customs union” in the “transition period” that, it hopes, will follow Brexit.

All this is a taste of things to come. We shall see many more instances of hard and soft Brexiteers celebrating victory or shrieking about betrayal. We shall also see UK and EU leaders storming out of talks, only to return to negotiations a few days later. My advice is to ignore it all until Friday 29 March 2019, when UK and EU leaders will emerge from all-night talks to announce a final, impenetrable fudge.

Lessons not learned

What you should not ignore is the scandal over Learndirect, the country’s largest adult training and apprenticeships provider. An Ofsted report states that a third of its apprentices receive none of the off-the-job training required. In a random sample, it found no evidence of learning plans.

Labour started Learndirect in 2000 as a charitable trust controlled by the Department for Education. It was sold to the private equity arm of Lloyds Bank in 2011 but remains largely reliant on public money (£158m in 2016-17). Since privatisation, 84 per cent of its cash has gone on management fees, interest payments and shareholder dividends. It spent £504,000 on sponsoring the Marussia Formula One team in an attempt to reach “our core customer group… in a new and exciting way”. The apprentices’ success rate fell from 67.5 per cent before privatisation to 57.8 per cent now.

This episode tells us that, however the Brexit process is going, Britain’s problems remain unchanged. Too many services are in the hands of greedy, incompetent private firms, and we are no closer to developing a skilled workforce. We only know about Learndirect’s failure because the company’s attempt to prevent Ofsted publishing its report was, after ten weeks of legal wrangling, overthrown in the courts.

A lot of hot air

Immediately after the Paris climate change accord in 2015, I expressed doubts about how each country’s emissions could be monitored and targets enforced. Now a BBC Radio 4 investigation finds that climate-warming gases emitted into the atmosphere far exceed those declared under the agreement. For example, declarations of methane emissions from livestock in India are subject to 50 per cent uncertainty, and those in Russia to 30-40 per cent uncertainty. One region in northern Italy, according to Swiss scientists, emits at least six times more climate-warming gases than are officially admitted. Remember this when you next hear politicians proclaiming that, after long and arduous negotiations, they have achieved a great victory.

Come rain or come shine

Climate change, scientists insist, is not the same thing as changes in the weather but writing about it brings me naturally to Britain’s wet August and newspaper articles headlined “Whatever happened to the sunny Augusts of our childhood?” and so on. The Daily Mail had one in which the writer recalled not a “single rainy day” from his family holidays in Folkestone. This, as he explained, is the result of what psychologists call “fading affect bias”, which causes our brains to hold positive memories longer than negative ones.

My brain is apparently atypical. I recall constant frustration as attempts to watch or play cricket were interrupted by rain. I remember sheltering indoors on family holidays with card games and books. My life, it seems, began, along with sunshine, when I left home for university at 18. Do psychologists have a name for my condition?

High and dry

Being an open-minded republican, I bought my wife, a keen gardener, an escorted tour of the gardens at Highgrove, the private residence of the man I call Charles Windsor, for her birthday. We went there this month during a break in the Cotswolds. The gardens are in parts too fussy, rather like its owner, but they are varied, colourful and hugely enjoyable. Two things struck me. First, the gardens of the elite were once designed to showcase the owner’s wealth and status, with the eye drawn to the grandeur of the mansion. Highgrove’s garden is designed for privacy, with many features intended to protect royalty from the prying public and particularly the press photographers’ long lenses. Second, our guide, pointing out what the owner had planted and designed, referred throughout to “His Royal Highness”, never “Charles”. I am pondering what these observations mean for the monarchy and its future.

Sympathy for the devil

Before leaving for the Cotswolds, we went to the Almeida Theatre in north London to see Ink, featuring Rupert Murdoch’s relaunch of the Sun in 1969. Many accounts of Murdoch  portray him as a power-crazed monster and his tabloid hacks as amoral reptiles. Ink is far more nuanced. It shows Murdoch as a mixture of diffidence, charm and menace, in love with newspapers and determined to blow apart a complacent,
paternalistic British establishment.

You may think that he and the Sun had a permanently coarsening effect on public life and culture, and I would largely agree. But he was also, in his own way, a 1960s figure and his Sun, with its demonic energy, was as typical a product of that decade as the Beatles’ songs. The play strengthened my hunch that its author, James Graham, who also wrote This House, set in the parliamentary whips’ offices during the 1970s, will eventually be ranked as the century’s first great playwright.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear