BEYOND shopping

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
"It was a quaint ritual, darlings. Everybody used to drive out of town once a week, load up what was called a supermarket trolley, hand over pounds 20 notes and head off home. Grandma used to work on the tills as what was called a checkout girl. But you'll know all about that."

It's 2050, and the teenaged twins are studying late 20th-century shopping habits through interactive modules on the home computer. When grandma comes to stay, they will pump her for first-hand accounts of how it used to be for their oral history project.

There seems to be a growing consensus among futurologists that this is how it will be: supermarkets rotting on the edge of town as families order goods and services down the line. The closest the children will get to a weekly shopping trek is a visit to the superstore theme park.

Electronic shopping is in its infancy, but it is growing. Already, "cash- rich/time-poor" consumers with a modem and a PC are shopping online, ordering wine from Tesco's site on CompuServe's virtual high street UK Shopping Centre, books from WH Smith, jewellery from Selfridges. It is still a novelty: although 38,126 people visited Interflora's Barclay Square site on the Net between November and May this year, actual orders were much fewer, according to a spokeswoman: "The public need to feel comfortable with using the Internet before they start seriously shopping." The Internet can be slow - and you can't yet order organic sausages and have them delivered in time for tea. But you can book a holiday, check your bank account or order a gift from the Science Museum.

Home shopping should get a big boost next year when British Sky Broadcasting launches its digital satellite TV service; it plans to give access to the Net as an extra incentive to buy the necessary digital "black box" decoders. These, BSkyB says, will have the computing power of an average PC and a very fast modem. BSkyB is negotiating with possible partners such as BT, in the hope that they will give initial subsidies for the decoders to kick-start the market. In return, they will be allowed to run home shopping and banking services on the system. Anyone with a satellite dish and a decoder could then go on shopping trips that cut out shops.

The next hurdle is delivery. Plans for a home-delivery service in suburban areas such as Surbiton and Esher in Surrey were announced last month by Jim Maxmin, former chief executive of Laura Ashley, who has run a service in the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts, since 1993. Weekly grocery orders, taken by phone or fax, are delivered into secure chilled boxes in customers' garages. Similar ventures are expected to follow from other companies.

The food retail business anticipates a huge growth in home delivery. The Paris-based Food Business Forum, which represents 45 retailers worldwide and most of the major food manufacturers, polled its members at its annual conference this summer. It found that 21 per cent of retailers believed 20 per cent or more of food will be delivered direct to consumers by 2005; 71 per cent thought that home delivery would account for 20 per cent or more by 2010.

One question this raises is what will happen to the supermarkets which have assumed such a central role in late 20th-century British life. Forty- six per cent of retailers surveyed believed that they would be "major entertainment attractions for consumers" by 2005. Supermarkets will probably have to get in on home delivery themselves to hold on to market share: Sainsbury already has a limited experiment in south-west London. But manufacturers are also likely to offer home delivery, cutting out the retailer.

There are limits to the allure of electronic shopping. People will still want to shop for ideas and pleasure. But many will cut out "drudge shopping" for staples, and the ritual family expedition to the out-of-town hypermarket is bound to decline as a feature of the British weekend. If this means a revival of community life within towns, no one but hypermarkets will complain.

At last year's Food Business Forum conference, Bill Gates of Microsoft congratulated the chief executives on getting shoppers do so much of their work for them: they drive to the edge of town, load and unload trolleys, drive home, unpack. Once they rebel, more and more transactions should whizz down the line. At this summer's conference, 50 per cent of senior retail executives made a startling admission. Asked whether, if they were not in the business, they would invest 50 per cent of their net worth in food retailing, half said "definitely not".

By the year 2050, the checkout girl - along with the high street bank manager - could well be appearing at a theme park near you.