Can Oxford Street compete with the cybermall?

Taken from the Royal Society of Arts Inaugural Lecture, given by Stuart Hampson, the John Lewis Partnership chairman

Share

When John Lewis was setting up his business in 1864, he seemed to ignore those three golden rules of retailing: "location, location, location". His shop selling silks for dressmaking was opened between a brush-maker and a dentist in an unfashionable part of the capital called Oxford Street.

When John Lewis was setting up his business in 1864, he seemed to ignore those three golden rules of retailing: "location, location, location". His shop selling silks for dressmaking was opened between a brush-maker and a dentist in an unfashionable part of the capital called Oxford Street.

Perhaps through good luck, but also through his own reputation and the natural tendency of traders to cluster together, Oxford Street has become one of the top shopping locations in the world, and we know how much benefit we draw from having our flagship department store in such a prime pitch. In the same way, Church Street, Liverpool, Eastgate Street, Chester or Argyll Street, Glasgow have been recognised as "prime pitch". It's been the same story on high streets up and down the country, as everyone has recognised where the buzz of shopping is strongest and where it is secondary. That was when retailing was relatively easy. You knew where you had to be, and as long as you pitched your shop in the right place you were in with a chance of making money.

Then, in the 1980s the rules began to change. A combination of increased car ownership and looser planning produced an explosion in out-of-town shopping. Northumberland Street, Newcastle - the place to be in the north-east of England - suddenly had to face the challenge of a former slag heap which had been transmogrified by marble and potted palms into the gleaming new Metrocentre.

Retailers could no longer rely on their own originality and shopkeeping skills. Their ability to win customers depended on whether the roads flowed freely and how rapacious the local authority was in fixing car-parking charges. The traditional prime pitch was no longer quite as prime, and the buzz on many high streets settled to a gentler drone.

But before retailers could even settle to this changed pattern we have entered a new competitive age. "The competitor you can't see" - e-commerce - is still in its infancy, and shopping on the net remains a minority activity, with rudimentary equipment available to the shopper and cumbersome processes offered by the seller. But this is like listening to the scratchy sound emitted by an early wind-up gramophone and saying that recorded music will never catch on. The speed of development of digital technology means that we won't be waiting the best part of a century for the equivalent of the move from stylus and megaphone to CD mini-system and surround-sound. Looking to the future, location, location, location will not be enough to guarantee retail success. In the third phase of retail competition, "experience, experience, experience" will be what matters.

Retailers have to recognise the importance of "time-starvation" and decide what this interest in "experience" means for them. First, it means new competition for disposable income: consumers choose to catch the Eurostar to Paris for the day or for the weekend when we know they should be doing the decent thing and shopping in Oxford Street! Theme parks and restaurants also compete for the customer's pound. Secondly, bricks and mortar retailing will have to offer a better experience than the alternative of sitting comfortably in front of an internet-linked television set that recognises your voice and answers your questions.

I'm not predicting a retail melt-down and the end of civilisation as we know it. Even the most excited forecasters talk about 25 per cent of sales moving to electronic channels, and more normal predictions for the next decade are about half that. So the physical tills will still jingle. But some sectors will be more affected than others.

Location, location, location or experience, experience, experience? The traditional bases of activity and sources of advantage are challenged by new opportunities for wider and better communication and interaction. Yet the significance of personal contact cannot be replaced by technology.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operations & Logistics Manager

£38000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's best performing...

Recruitment Genius: GeoDatabase Specialist - Hazard Modelling

£35000 - £43000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our award-winning client is one...

Recruitment Genius: Compressed Air Pipework Installation Engineer

£15000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of Atlas ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Coordinator - Pallet Network

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Opportunity to join established...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Political Editor: With 100 days still to go how will Cameron, Miliband and Co. keep us all engaged?

Andrew Grice
A solar energy farm in France  

Nature Studies: For all the attractions of solar power, it shouldn’t blight the countryside

Michael McCarthy
Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea