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E-commerce – saviour of the high street?

Home / Blog / E-commerce – saviour of the high street?

Written by Giles Bennett

Anyone who was born before 1980 will remember a world without the internet, without smart phones, tablets, Amazon, Google and large out-of-town shopping centres. A world where every high street had a mixture of big high street multiples like Woolworths, W H Smiths, Dixons and BHS alongside small independent shops - a record shop, video shop, off licence, baker, butcher, greengrocer, fishmonger, cheesemonger, locksmith, shoe shop, key cutter, haberdashery, book shop, chemist and a variety of clothes shops - all working in a symbiotic relationship with the bigger high street stores.

The rise of the out-of-town supermarket

Then along came the huge out-of-town supermarkets, selling everything you would need to stock a household for a week, and slowly many of the old stores on the high street started to disappear -, greengrocers, bakers, butchers, fishmongers and cheesemongers struggled to compete against a store where customers could get the whole week’s shopping in one fell swoop.

Take away the grocers on the high street and you are left with the record shops, video shops, lock smiths, shoe shops, key cutters, haberdashery, book shops, chemists and clothes shops. Still plenty to attract customers, but no longer with the necessity of old, no longer requiring the weekly pilgrimage.

A new way to shop

Then came the hybrid clothing shops, offering customers two ways to shop - in their stores or from their catalogue. Offering reasonable quality non-branded clothing that could be bought without even leaving the comfort of your sofa. Busy workers who now regularly did their shop in the big supermarkets could get their shopping out of the way with one quick trip to the supermarket, and could order their clothes from a catalogue to be tried on at their convenience at home.

So what was left? The record shop, video shop, lock smith, key cutter, haberdashery, book shop and chemist. Not much to draw customers into town? Still enough to keep the high street going, but the cracks were starting to grow, every store that disappeared became a charity shop, discount shop, hair dresser or simply boarded up.

Then BANG! Out of nowhere came the INTERNET!

Well, that’s not quite how it happened, but the exponential growth of the internet has come about through the continued evolution of the technology we can use to access it. Home computers, laptops, smart phones and tablets are now easier to use than ever and are becoming cheaper and cheaper. (You can now buy tablet computers from China running Microsoft Windows for less than £80).

Whilst some retailers chose to ignore the internet, others embraced it whole heartedly. Take the company Cadabra that was formed in 1994 by Jeff Bezos. Bezos started by sitting down and thinking of 10 things that could be sold online and eventually decided that books represented the best option. He decided the name Cadabra sounded too much like Cadavar and so renamed his little company Amazon. Amazon now accounts for 41% of ALL new book sales (online AND high street). Despite Amazon’s dominance over the book industry, it is still estimated that online shopping will only account for 17% of all retail by the year 2017.

The way the media portrays the death of the high street and the dominance of online retailers like Amazon and ASOS you’d think the high street had been murdered by the internet. Both Amazon and ASOS dominate the online markets for their own respective fields, Amazon primarily selling Books, Electronics, Music and Film whilst ASOS exclusively sell clothing. ASOS are a huge online-only British success, however, the two largest fashion retailers in the world use a hybrid approach to retail.

The true saviour of the high street?

H&M and Zara sell on both the high street AND online. Customer can sit at home and browse their catalogue as well as visiting a store to try the clothing on. In a recent study of shoppers, 71% expected to be able to view shop stock online before visiting and over 50% of people ordering online expected to be able to go and pick up in store. Those statistics show that online retail hasn’t replaced the high street at all – instead, it’s become a part of the high street.

The death of the high street happened long before the internet came along – it arrived with out of town, American-style, shopping centres and hyper-markets offering ample free parking and everything you need under one roof. Look at an average UK town and you will find charity shops, nail bars, hairdressers, pound shops, pawn brokers and betting shops where once the independent shops and big chain stores once mingled. Go to other countries in Europe and you will find a branch of Zara or H&M in the high street, the same way you would find W H Smith in an English town.

Every successful high street store has an equally successful online store. It’s long since gone from being an option to being a customer expectation. They don’t necessarily want to buy from it, but they do expect to be able to browse and see what is available. If they are going to make that trip into town they have to have an incentive, and knowing that that pair of shoes is in stock in their size, or that you have 6 bottles of the Châteauneuf Du Pape 1998 left, will drive customers into your shop.

Get in touch

HummingbirdUK specialise in creating beautiful e-commerce sites which can augment existing retail ventures and open up a whole world of customers. No matter what you sell, we can aid you in creating just the right online presence and drive customers to your shop and site with our Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and marketing campaigns. Alternatively you may fancy yourself as the next Jeff Bezos, in which case we can also help you set up your online venture and who knows where you might be in 20 years time!

Author : Giles Bennett

About the author

Giles Bennett built his first website in 1996, and is old enough to miss Netscape Navigator. Initially a lawyer, he jumped ship to IT in 2008, and after 5 years as a freelancer, he founded HummingbirdUK in 2013. He can be reached by email at