Are we being served?

Image of Robert Shrimsley

I once had a Saturday job selling tennis rackets in a sports shop. Since my own game was somewhat lacking, the manager gave me a 10-minute tutorial. The trick was to direct customers to the two more expensive brands by asking whether they were more of a back of the court player like Bjorn Borg or a serve-volleyer like John McEnroe. It was important to say this with a straight face, as if it were a perfectly natural question to ask of a fat-bottomed, flat-footed, bespectacled man whose co-ordination skills extended only to the silky production of his MasterCard.

Once they bought into the comparison – which they did with astonishing frequency – one simply plucked up the expensive racket with the words “well this is what Borg/McEnroe uses”. In their own minds they were already racing along the line and eviscerating their opponent with their powerful backhand. This, said my manager, was the “retail experience” one created for customers. Thanks to his cunning, a small part of the tennis playing community of Hendon were clutching a graphite Donnay racket as the balls whizzed past them, or a Dunlop which they used to lethal effect on the third bounce.

I recall that time when, amid the gloom over the demise of Jessops, HMV, and other stores that none of us shop in any more, I hear predictions for the future of shopping as offering “new retail experiences”. Writing in the FT last month, Brent Hoberman showed an internet entrepreneur’s lack of sympathy for the high street’s fallen giants but looked forward to a new era of super retail experiences. Shops would be fewer but they would become showrooms rather than mere transactional venues; temples of commerce, staffed allegedly by knowledgeable salespeople.

There is clearly something in this, particularly if you divide the retail footprint. At one end will be the drab utility stores, answering instant needs: eggs, milk, a tub of Clinique spot-masking cream for that big date. At the other will be the retail “experience”, the showrooms where we can browse before ordering online. It will be rather like going to Habitat for anything bigger than a pepper pot. In fact, now you think about it, it will be like going to Carpetright. Except that everything will be fun. There will be events, fashion shows and all kinds of cool happenings. Is this that new? I recall the experience of all the trendy clothes shops of my early teen years. (I never visited them myself, of course, being part of the ironic and mocking BHS crowd, who coolly opted out of the commercial sphere by letting our mums buy the clothes for us.)

But in this new universe every shop will be as spiffy as the Apple Store with its cool elegance and Genius Bar. Currys will have dishwasher geniuses, Heal’s will have sofa geniuses and Asda will have chicken geniuses. Still, I can’t help thinking of all those small specialist butchers, fish- and ironmongers, which would supposedly see off the retail giants because of their expertise and personal service, now driven out of business by the ruthless efficiency of Homebase and Tesco. What’s more, stores will increasingly use online advisers who can answer technical questions and ask if you are a Borg or a McEnroe, reducing further the need for physical high-street presence.

As for the new retail experience, you can see how it might work in a select glamour retail destinations, the Westfields and Oxford Streets. Who has not enjoyed the Hollister or Gilly Hicks retail experience of having their photo taken with a buff shirtless man? My weekly shop is never complete without such a moment, though it’s harder to spot the guy at Tesco. But these are for shopping excursions rather than the routine. When I go to a shoe shop, I’m looking for pair of size nines not a team of Irish hoofers performing Riverdance. But then, my idea of a great retail experience is being in and out in five minutes.

In any case, even great shops won’t withstand real technological disruption. Most people will trade convenience for experience most of the time. Tower Records was once a great retail experience too.

See also “Amazon unpacked

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