Members of the IAB Affiliate Marketing Council were invited on Monday night to a parliamentary debate. Originally this was scheduled to be in the Houses of Parliament however it was moved to Portcullis House next door but the format remained the same and around 15 AMC delegates turned up to take their seats as backbenchers.
The evening started with an address from the Chair, MP Mike Weatherly who introduced the four speakers who would put forward their arguments for and against the motion “ecommerce will be the saviour of the High Street”
eCommerce vs 'The High Street'
Motion For (1 of 2) - Google
Dominic Allon from Google bravely stepped up first to outline his (not surprising) argument for the motion. He spoke about how online was growing the overall revenues for businesses, quoting that Next reported they were up 3% this Christmas versus the previous year, their high street sales were down but online growth was up significantly resulting in an overall growth in their retail sales.
Dominic also talked about multi-channel retailing and how it wasn’t really a wrestling match between offline or online, a combination of both would equal success and survival of the high street. He explained how online search can drive footfall into the high-street.
Motion Against (1 of 2) - Carphone Warehouse
Next up was Matt Stringer, MD of Carphone Warehouse who was arguing against the motion. He talked about how online retailers are helping destroy the high-street, referring to Amazon who has seen 30% YoY growth, of which he claimed was directly hitting the high street. He ran through a quite depressing list of high-street retailers that had perished or are currently very much on the edge of doing so such as Woolworths, Peacocks and HMV.
He also argued that large ecommerce players are not multi-channel, explaining that iTunes is a one dimensional channel in that it trades 100% online, which we know has had a direct impact on high-street music trade. He also talked about how 1 in 7 of high-street shops are now empty, one fact that I’m sure we can all identify within our own communities.
Motion For (2 of 2) - Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB)
After Matt the argument swung back to Richard Eyre from the IAB who was in favour of the motion although he did perhaps inadvertently offer some support for the motion against by stating that shopping was a pleasurable pastime and that the in-store experience could not be replicated everywhere online and therefore would always survive.
His key points were that ecommerce was a component for success and that retailers needed to embrace this and not fear it. He also spoke about Apple, Nike and Waterstones who have made shopping offline into an occasion. This was later refuted by Matt Stringer who noted that Apple had just 30 stores nationwide and there are very few Nike town stores outside of Oxford Street.
Motion Against (2 of 2) - Planet Retail
Last up was Paul Martin from Planet Retail whom started his argument on a similarly depressing note to Matt where he quoted that the High Street had lost 17 square feet of retail space. His argument was that retailers needed to innovate in order to save the high street but this was in their hands, it wasn’t a case of ecommerce saving the high street. He noted the 5 areas that retail need to embrace to survive; large range of products, strong brand, good management, multi-channel and financial strength.
He added that the last point had been the demise of many of the perished retailers no longer on our high street stating that retailers needed to think differently about how they are managed and the debt they take on. His argument was that ecommerce was neither the saviour nor the killer of the high street; it was in the retailers hands to save the high-street.
Opening The Floor For Debate
Once the arguments for and against had been put forward it was time to open up to the floor and some really interesting opinions and questions were raised.
One back bencher questioned why consumers found it easier to have a dialogue with an online retailer than in-store, suggesting that shopping was no longer a pleasant experience and retailers had lost their way when it comes to servicing their customers. He also talked about depressing high streets consisting of Wetherspoons, bookies and charity shops and that the high streets themselves needed to revamp and encourage customers back in.
Another member of the audience commented that retailers have not innovated and that’s why we are seeing the demise of the high street. Ecommerce however is helping force that change which in the long term can only be positive for the high street.
An audience member from Google made a very valid point that ecommerce had actually helped independent retailers go from strength to strength as they now had the tools to compete on a global scale and were no longer being repressed by the giants such as Tesco.
Ken, an elderly gentleman piped up to ask what both sets of the argument were doing for people like him, an increasingly growing population that did not use technology and therefore ecommerce didn’t appeal to them yet their high-street was no longer meeting his needs either.
Other points were around multi-channel retailing and how offline could drive footfall to the high street and also a mention of how some pure play Internet retailers were now venturing into the high street, such as eBay.
This was a really interesting debate and the outcome was that most of the audience was in favour of the motion. However, it is important to note that this was an audience that was very much Internet bias, including the 15 from the Affiliate Marketing Council (AMC). The argument against was well presented and I think an audience of less Internet marketers may have swung the vote to be more evenly split.
From my own personal opinion, I went into this debate 100% for the motion but it made me question the role of eCommerce and the affect it has on the High Street.
I think undoubtedly there has been a negative affect from the giants such as Amazon but this is no different to the off-line giants of Tesco and out of town shopping centres. I think the real issue is that consumers have fallen out of love with the high street and the high street needs to innovate to bring those consumers back.
Competing with eCommerce is not the way, they need to embrace eCommerce, work alongside it and offer a reason for consumers to come back to the high street. Whether that is local markets, boutique shops, delivery outlets for online orders, free parking, pedestrianized streets I don’t know but it’s clear that ecommerce isn’t the death of the high street but it’s not on its own the saviour either.