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The Changing Face Of Christmas Shopping

by Joch Robinson


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As Christmas day fast approaches I am sure that I am not unique in looking back with fond memories of past Christmases. Talking to my 11 year old daughter about Christmas when I was her age made me think of how things have changed over the past 40 years and how trading patterns have evolved to meet an increasingly more demanding customer and how traditional high street retailers and mail order/internet retailers have evolved in the same period.

I would like to use Christmas as an excuse to plagiarise a little and in Dickensian style like to welcome you one and all to the draughty halls of Exact Abacus where the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future are waiting to show us how shopping has changed in this the festive period.

The Ghost of Christmas Shopping Past

In the late 1970’s and early 80’s I remember the run up to Christmas being very busy. My father owned a small shoe shop and as with all retailers the Christmas period was the most important trading period of the year. What I also remember was the post Christmas Day period where absolutely nothing was open and how the money and vouchers that I had been given for Christmas burned a hole in my pocket until I had an opportunity to use these in early January and pick up a bargain in the sales.

My only exposure to the mail order industry at this time was the Littlewoods catalogue which would turn up early October and had a massive toy section. I can still remember spending hours looking at the catalogue pages longingly at whatever was the latest and greatest toy. I can also remember that the lead times on orders were often 21 days plus and the cut off date for Christmas delivery was late November/very early December.

The Ghost of Christmas Shopping Present

During the mid 1980’s as consumers became more demanding retailers started to trade in the days between Christmas and New Year and over the same period the January Sales moved back to become “Boxing Day” sales as increasingly the high street opened for business for more of the Christmas period.

During the same period “Mail Order” was still restricted to a more catalogue based postal order/telephone call centre model. Increasing access to computers and the internet and the advent of more transactional websites allowed more direct and automated access to customers. Increased efficiencies and competition in the logistics market also benefited mail order companies who could increasingly offer shorter delivery times. Currently it is becoming increasingly the norm for businesses operating in “mail order” to be able to offer next day delivery (Next even offer this on orders up to 10pm in the evening). We take it for granted that domestic orders will take a few days to turn up and the thought of 21days or greater would probably make us try a different retailer to get our goods.

To combat an increasingly more aggressive mail order industry, in the same period traditional high street retailers have retaliated by creating their own mail order/internet presence in an attempt to maintain or increase market share. Retailers having the added advantage of a high street/physical store location also introduced Click & Collect services allowing consumers the luxury of being able to shop online and the convenience of picking up the order at a local store.

As one of the main issues with ordering online/over the phone is delivery, mail order companies took advantage of increasingly more sophisticated logistics services and introduced a myriad of new services ranging from 1 hour time slots to imminent (with 15 minutes) delivery notifications to live tracking of your parcel whilst in transit.

The other service that has been developed over recent years is the collection from a local retail outlet, most notably the Collect + service where your parcel is delivered to a local store (normally a convenience store such as Spar) and you can collect your goods from them. All these services have helped mail order firms continue to grow and overcome traditional obstacles to meet and often exceed the expectations of their customers.

With Christmas day only a few days away we are all looking forward to a few days off, however traditional high street retailers will open Boxing Day in select locations and the 27th for almost everywhere else. Mail Order companies however will be looking forward to brisk Christmas day sales as people increasingly choose to go online and do a little bit of Christmas Day surfing whilst watching the Queens Speech. Sales in recent years for Christmas Day have been upwards of £180 million + as people spend vouchers and money online.

The Ghost of Christmas Shopping Future

So what does the future hold for online retailers and the high street? Looking over the pond retailers can already trade 24/7 365 days a year (these being the normal trading hours of the Apple store in New York) and the UK certainly seems to follow where our American friends lead. While I do not believe every store in every city would open Christmas day if they could, retail centres such as the Metro Centre/Trafford Centre etc. who already enjoy massive Boxing Day shopping events could conceivably have a profitable Christmas Day were they to be permitted to open. From a personal perspective, and having a retail background, I do not believe this would be a good thing as I think that at least 2 days a year should be set aside as non trading days, however I can certainly see that as competition increases and consumers demand more, a move to shopping on Christmas Day and Easter Sunday could happen in the UK.

For online retailers our challenges will be to meet and exceed the expectations of customers by utilising new technology and services as well as improving our own internal systems and processes. So where does the future lie for Mail Order? How can we improve on next day delivery? A few mail order companies are now starting to offer same day delivery on white goods (for a premium price) and as with all things the luxuries of today can become the norm of tomorrow. As lead times have reduced for delivery over the past years from 21 days being the norm to next day then it is not beyond reason that same day delivery will also become more widespread.

Another “innovation” of Amazon in the US is the proposed introduction of Amazon Prime Air which Amazon have said is ready with the only barrier for launch (and by launch this would be literally a launch) being the American Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Prime Air (sounds like a Transformer to me) would aim to get goods to customers within 30 minutes of ordering via unmanned aerial drones (Santa would need Rudolf’s red nose to avoid crashing into these on Christmas Eve as parents panic buy from Amazon for those last minute presents).

I would like to end this festive blog by wishing customers old, new and future as well as my colleagues a very merry Christmas and a Dickensian style “Bah Humbug”.

by Joch Robinson on 17/12/2014

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