After malls and superstores, though, the hot new retail venue is where the customer lives. Supermarkets are experimenting with home deliveries, TV shopping has crossed the Atlantic, and paperbacks conclude with mail order details. Web sites offer an additional channel for home shopping.
The problem is that they are wildly erratic performers. The case of Argos, the discount warehouse which sold precisely 22 items in nine months via a "virtual high street" site, has become legend among those seeking to make actual money out of the Web. According to retail analysts Verdict, electronic shopping accounted for only pounds 42 million of a pounds 6 billion British home shopping market last year, and most of that was through the QVC television channel.
Despite having one of the country's best known book brands, and a well- publicised site (www.penguin.com), Penguin sells a modest 150-200 books via the Net each month. According to Caroline Benn, who minds the site, this fits the plan. Penguin doesn't actually want to sell barrowloads of books electronically, she explains, because retailing interests have expressed concerns.
Now the retailers themselves are getting onto the Net. Waterstone's Internet Bookshop (www.waterstones.co.uk) went live recently, dotted with literary aphorisms and equipped with a map of Waterstone's three- dimensional bookshops. The name is slightly misleading, since the site is more like an online magazine, extending the chain's aspirations to literary patronage into hypermedia. The underlying commercial purpose is to enhance Waterstone's brand image, and to raise the chain's profile overseas. Revenue from book sales is seen as a source of funds for the editorial content of the site, rather than as its raison d'etre.
None the less, it's perfectly possible to run a bookshop without touching the ground, as is demonstrated by operations such as Amazon.com Books of Seattle, which claims to be "Earth's Biggest Bookstore", and the Internet Book Shop (www.bookshop.co.uk), which claims to be "The Largest On-Line Bookshop in the World".
The latter was started in 1994 as an exercise in using the Net as a sales medium. Books seemed an obvious choice of commodity; unsurprisingly, since the company is based in Oxford, where it is hard not to notice the sales potential of books, and academic titles in particular. Academics often require books not held in shop stocks, and they are on the Net. They account for 60 per cent of the Internet Book Shop's sales, now claimed to be running at 1,000 books a week.
There are three keys to iBS's success. The first is Whitaker's database of books published in Britain, which gives customers access to a "stock" of 912,000 titles. The second is that these customers are scattered across 70 countries: the iBS is essentially a vehicle, powered by the Whitaker's engine, for exporting British books. Less than a fifth of its sales are domestic: 22 per cent go to the US, and ten per cent each to Japan and Sweden.
The final key was software designed to make Internet cash transactions secure. Sales took off when this was installed last summer, making customers feel as safe from hackers as they evidently do handing their credit cards to underpaid waiters.