About 10 years ago, we began to think that we could see the writing on the wall. Electronic commerce would gradually replace conventional brick-and-mortar retailers, just as electronic forms of communication would gradually eliminate printed media such as books, magazines and newspapers.
Back then we became obsessive about measuring the pace at which the transition was happening, so each year after the holiday selling season we would scour the postmortem for clues. What was the current percentage breakdown between the two options? Was the changeover accelerating, slowing, or continuing apace? What year could we expect the old style to disappear entirely?
Gradually, though, we began to realize that it was not a binary choice. It wasn’t just that physical retailers were evolving, developing websites and learning ecommerce techniques, but that shoppers were evolving as well. They liked some features from one world and some from the other, which pressured both sides to develop a hybrid shopping process that was ever cheaper, faster and more convenient.
It seemed serendipitous that smartphones were popularized right at this particular juncture, because they completed the triangular relationship among old commerce, new commerce and the consumer. An abundance of apps now allows shoppers in physical stores to compare prices, read reviews, check inventory, download coupons or whatever else they want on the fly.
The blurred lines have rendered comparisons less stark than in years past, to the point that most of us probably don’t pay much attention to them anymore. For that very reason I thought it might be interesting to see what sort of figures I could dig up from the 2016 Christmas season.
The International Council of Shopping Centers conducted an extensive survey to obtain sales results from the Thanksgiving weekend, from which I picked out the following nuggets. Fifty-seven percent of adults visited brick and mortar stores over the weekend, which was up from 51 percent the previous year. Eighty-nine percent of shoppers purchased something both online and in-store. Eighty percent of total sales went to merchants that have physical stores.
In addition, 64 percent of those who purchase something online to pick up at a store, which I guess we are now calling “click and collect,” purchased something else while in the store. That practice was up 6 percent from 2015.
A few years ago, the readers of this magazine were complaining bitterly about so-called “showrooming,” in which shoppers would come to your store to look at products that they would then order online. According to a recent study by the accounting firm Accenture, the reverse process has actually become more popular. They estimate that 65 percent of shoppers now browse online prior to buying at a store, as opposed to around half who engage in showrooming.
In general, it appears as though the people who predicted the merger of the various retail strategies into a single model, or “omnichannel,” may have been correct. Only 18 percent of the early Christmas shoppers bought from a pure online merchant, and much of that was probably one particular merchant. Given that Amazon is now experimenting with physical stores, we may even have to move it out of that category in the near future.
Perhaps I am engaging in wishful thinking, but I think I am seeing signs of something beyond the combination of digital and conventional merchandizing. There has always been one serious flaw in the digital paradigm, and it’s us. We are analog creatures, and I have long suspected that there would come a point at which we would begin to push back against a world of zeros and ones. The question is, how will we recognize the tipping point?
Last week I read an opinion piece in The New York Times by a man named Emerson Csorba, who is an education policy advisor to the Canadian government and a fellow in the Royal Society of Arts. He described a public policy forum he attended recently in Geneva, Switzerland, which was heralded as a gathering of 450 key “changemakers” from throughout the world. Rather than tackling the world’s problems, however, he said that the attendees spent their time staring at their phones, posting things on social media, and taking selfies.
Maybe you don’t think it matters how a bunch of eggheads spend their time in the Alps, but I think you will find pretty much the same behavior at any gathering of modern humans, regardless of how inappropriate or counterproductive it may be. I don’t attend church services very often, but I was at one a few days ago, and a lot of people seemed to be staring at their laps.
At least people at conferences and church services aren’t killing anyone by not paying attention, but others actually are. In a story that has been under-reported, traffic accidents rose at an alarming rate of around 10 percent in both 2014 and 2015. Investigators believe that the explanation is driver distraction caused not by texting, which had already leveled off, but rather by the proliferation of dashboard apps that are now available on new cars.
I can well believe it. I bought a new car a year ago, and for the first couple weeks I left the navigation system on as the default setting for the dashboard screen. It was always interesting to watch the map, but after a couple of scary lane departures I shut the thing off and haven’t used it since.
Okay, so while most of us can probably agree that the digital revolution has overshot the runway, you may not have noticed any serious effort at a course correction. Nonetheless there are a couple of small developments that have given me hope.
One is the toy business itself. The NPD Group reports that the greatest category decline, by dollars, for 2016 was in “youth electronics,” which fell by 9 percent. That followed a decline of 5 percent in that category for 2015. The largest increase was in outdoor toys, which grew at a 9 percent rate in both 2015 and 2016.
Another is the book business, which is not entirely unrelated. The number of physical bookstores in the U.S. has been rising steadily for the past seven years, now amounting to an increase of more than 30 percent. Although there is a good deal of debate about the statistics, it appears that sales of ebooks have leveled off, and sales of printed books have been going up.
Speaking of printed books, a new one from reporter David Sax, entitled Revenge of the Analog, makes the case for a pendulum swinging backwards throughout our culture. Vinyl record sales, for example, hit $416 million last year, the highest level in 27 years. Other rejuvenated products include paper notebooks, erasable whiteboards, typewriters, film cameras and board games.
I’ll leave you with one more stat. The ICSC report indicated that 68 percent of the people who went out to shop at brick-and-mortar stores this season also engaged in some sort of non-shopping activity while they were out. I have no idea what the activities were, nor do I care, so long as they did not require touchscreens.
Up the revolution!