Can technology be the making of community retailing?

Several health store owners I spoke with at last month’s Natural & Organic Products Europe told me that footfall had been significantly down over the first few months of this year. So, when another retailer corroborated these reports I wasn’t all that surprised. What did take me slightly aback was his next comment: “But, do you know Jim, I think the days of bricks and mortar only health food stores are numbered.”

So, there I was, standing in the middle of Olympia with one of the health food trade’s best, and best-known retailers, and he seemed to be telling me, ‘that’s it, time’s up for the likes of us and our type of business’.

Except, he wasn’t. He was simply stating a fact that is staring specialist independent retailers of all types and size straight in the face. Which is that the internet has, or is, changing everything — in ways that we couldn’t have imagined. And whatever we personally think about internet shopping, the people who shop in our stores also shop online; which, in turn, is changing their expectations as consumers.

Let’s call our retailer John. What John was saying was that online will have to become part of health store retailer’s mix. And his point is, that you don¹t need to be doing that much online business to be making a real impression on your overall sales. In the end, it’s all about building long-term business viability.

Of course some people remain unconvinced about online. Isn’t its impersonal nature completely at odds with the idea of community retailing? In isolation, probably yes. But when online is combined with face-to-face contact and ‘real world’ events, something else starts to happen. In fact, many retailers are discovering that the new technology can be a powerful tool to build a loyal community hub.

Of course, developing a website — especially a full trading site — isn’t something to be entered into lightly. Here, some will gladly accept the help offered by web development or e-commerce support companies, while others will take on the technical and logistical challenges themselves (arguing that the service suppliers don’t understand the market, or that they, the retailer, want to be fully in control). Certainly if you plan to sell from your site, at the very least you’ll need a dedicated order fulfillment person (though not necessarily extra storage space if you use your shopfloor as your warehouse) — and someone constantly updating your site.

Natural products retailers who are doing this well are not only boosting their overall sales, but often driving up footfall in store. Quite often, it seems, shoppers will browse and chat on line — and then bring their shopping list into the shop to make their purchase conventionally. This is just one of the counterintuitive aspects of ‘social shopping’. It might also be an example of technology helping to take community retailing back to its roots, offering meaningful human contact that the supermarkets never can.

By Jim Manson

Natural Products editor and environment journalist
Jim Manson is editor of Natural Products magazine. He’s written widely on environment and development issues for specialist magazines and national media, including the Financial Times, The Guardian and Time Out.