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The future of shopping – a third way?

Posted by markharrison on May 2, 2007

I had a meeting in Oxford this morning, but owing to very light traffic, got there about an hour too early. This gave me time to kill, so I went to three of the Blackwells shops. Firstly their “flagship”, specifically the second-hand department on the third floor. Then the “Art and Poster”, where I didn’t really find anything. Finally, the Music Shop, where I did… but I won’t tell you what just yet…

Shop-keepers have a fairly difficult problem in the years to come – the problem is, of course, that one can buy pretty much anything on the Internet, and (obviously) Internet stores can be run at a much lower overhead than one requires to rent a place on the High Street and pay staff.

In the late 1990s, I worked for Lend Lease – not exactly a household name (unless you live in Australia), but one of the world’s larger operators of shopping malls. In the UK, they are the people behind Bluewater. I visited Bluewater a little while before it opened (hard hat tour!) and was impressed at the size of the construction. But more impressive (to me) was the vision that was clear in the show suite – the part of the site that was used to present to potential retailers. The vision was that shopping is retail is indeed becoming harder, and that in order to make a profit there is an alternative to cutting costs and being the cheapest – you can, instead, provide an “experience.” Make the act of shopping a destination in its own right. This, to my mind, Bluewater has done excellently. It’s just so much nicer to shop there than, say, at my local centre (County Mall in Crawley). Not for any single reason, but because of a huge number of minor points (like the parking spaces being 20 cm wider than the UK norm, so I never have to abandon a space because the doors on the car are wider than normal.)

However, Blackwells Music Shop in Oxford this morning, I was reminded that there is a “Third Way” – that you can be a success on the high street, provided that you offer phenomenal service.

So, what did I buy?

About a year ago, driving home one evening from a training course, I heard a track on Radio 3. (I tend to listen to BBC Southern Counties when I’m moving, but switch to Radio 3 when I’m stuck in heavy traffic because it calms me down.)

I wanted to buy the CD, so I said “I heard a track on radio 3 a while ago. It was early music, sort of Palestrina-like, but could have been Vittoria or someone else. Then it had a bizarre saxaphone counterpoint”.

“Ah yes”, said the store assistant. I know what you want – there are two of them, but we’re out of stock of the one that you’re probably after. Then he took me over to the shelf, and picked out the one they did have in stock – Officium by Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble, playing music by people like Morales and Dufay.

He then offered to order in the other one, but I explained I’m not in Oxford very often, so instead he wrote down the name for me so I could order it online.

Anyway, I’m writing this while lying on the Chesterfield in Mary’s study, listening to Officium on the laptop, and it is absolutely stunning – whether it’s the one I’d heard on Radio 3 is neither here nor there – this CD is great!

So, well done Blackwells Music Shop – superb service, and a great example of how the High Street might indeed survive.

However, before I sign off – a quick rant. I’m in Oxford about 6 times a year now, and normally at Domia’s office during working hours, so I don’t get into the town centre until typically about 7pm.

Blackwells is shut in the evenings. Borders is crowded. I’ve hundreds of pounds in there in 2006 – you could have had that business!


One Response to “The future of shopping – a third way?”

  1. Erin said

    One thing Internet stores have yet to master is that personal touch. The same anecdote could be about shopping for a home using online resources only vs. a real live real estate agent.

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