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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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.