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 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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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.