Buying time

Richard Williams visits New York’s first Internet shop and charts the development of on-line consumerism in the US.

The argument has rumbled on for years. Will the future of shopping be synonymous with the small screen? Life is not that simple. The advent of radio didn’t mean the death of newspapers, television didn’t kill radio and, similarly, I don’t believe shopping on the Internet will be the downfall of the supermarket.

However, like newspapers, radio and TV, Internet shopping will have a distinct role. QVC is currently flying the flag for home shopping in the UK, but to say it is flying at half mast would be too kind. It specialises in selling the sort of products that none of us really needs or wants. On the other side of the Atlantic, where the public has embraced computer technology more readily, on-screen shopping, while still embryonic, is significantly more advanced.

I was fascinated by a recent news snippet on the opening of Virtual Emporium, New York’s first Internet shop. We were told to watch this space with regard to a launch in the UK. While I’m a big fan of the Internet my first reaction was: why do you need a store dedicated to Internet shopping, when the whole point is to eliminate the need to actually visit a shop? To understand more about the Virtual Emporium concept I decided to visit the New York store.

Virtual Emporium is sited in the Upper West Side, just a block away from Central Park. Its location in this leafy, very affluent part of New York provided the first of many surprises. I had expected a venture of this type to be located in the cut and thrust of somewhere like Silicon Alley (home to Internet cafés not cosmetic surgeons). It was, therefore, no surprise that, for the duration of my two-hour visit, there were very few customers. There was a definite dearth of passing trade.

So what need does Virtual Emporium satisfy? “Not everyone has access to a computer”, says Lesle Rea, vice-president of design and production, “therefore Virtual Emporium brings Internet shopping to them – they can come in and use the computers free of charge. We have staff available to teach our customers how to access the Internet and to find what they want. We have T1 connections – the fastest way to download information – and this alone is a huge plus. The concept also brings computers into a social situation. Why should people have to isolate themselves in their office or bedroom?”

Virtual Emporium is essentially a fusion of technology with the shopping experience. The staff are charming and helpful and have the enthusiasm of pioneers. But I found it confusing to see a pristine display of goods among the computers. Were they for sale or were they examples of the sort of goods you could buy on the Net? The problem was that if the products were for sale, they were so well arranged you wouldn’t want to disturb them.

Rea explains: “You can buy what you see, we have not given up on that part of the shopping experience.” She believes the presence of products is of great importance. “When we opened our original store in Santa Monica we didn’t believe that having merchandise in-store would be a big deal. But we soon learned that customers need to see real live goods – so we increased the number of products,” she adds.

The onus is on the staff to greet every person as they walk through the door and find out if they have visited before. “If they haven’t, then we need to explain what we are about, and help them to get shopping,” explains Rea.

So what are the attractions of shopping this way? “Some stores offer special ‘deals of the day’, which are only accessed on-line, but overall our prices are the same as are available in-store.” The real selling point, according to the founders of Virtual Emporium, is convenience. Customers can buy a variety of items quickly. For instance, because of the speedy access to the Net available on their computers, you could order flowers, a case of wine and speciality teas in a matter of minutes.

Virtual Emporium has learned a few hard lessons. Its first store, in Santa Monica, has closed. It discovered too late that most of the visitors attracted to the store were tourists – not great if you depend on repeat business. Rea admits that the visitors to the Santa Monica store were “intrigued but didn’t buy”. Virtual Emporium has effectively taken on the mantle of “educator”.

Learning by trial and error, Virtual Emporium is becoming more focused. The New York store will stay trading, certainly in the short term, but meanwhile, the organisation has opened a number of concession outlets in airports and within other retail environments. Rather than providing large banks of computers and product display areas, within these concessions, it operates a few computers where there is a reliable flow of passing trade and low overheads.

Things will also change in their flagship store. Rea predicts that: “In order to make more money, we are going to rent out space.” Virtual Emporium earns some of its money through sponsorship, but does not receive commission on sales. Rea says that this may have to change if Virtual Emporium is to succeed and grow.

There seems to be a good market for ordering speciality products on-screen – Virtual Emporium’s success has been proved in this sector. But people want to hand-pick luxury items and gifts – we like to look and feel.

Sadly, a brave experiment such as this would probably be received with even greater suspicion on this side of the Atlantic. On matters of the Internet, the US continues to educate us.

Richard Williams is managing director of Williams Murray Banks.

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