The silver surfers

Many brick-and-mortar shops in the UK are shutting down and axing jobs. Photo: Reuters

Many brick-and-mortar shops in the UK are shutting down and axing jobs. Photo: Reuters

The retail industry is undergoing a rapid revolution. Only a decade or so ago one could buy tools and hardware, book a holiday from a travel agent, buy fresh fish, order white goods and a TV set, and get measured for a handmade suit in Valletta. Today these retail outlets have become scarce in our capital as people flock to shopping malls or merely buy goods online.

More changes will affect retail businesses in the coming few years as online shopping becomes more secure, convenient and reliable. Data published by the UK Office of National Statistics makes interesting reading. It seems that the pensioners are the demographic group that is getting hooked most by online shopping.

In the last decade, the number of what retail analysts label as silver surfers has trebled debunking the often held popular view that older people are averse to using modern technology. In the UK, almost half of those over 65 bought goods online in 2018. Of course, most pensioners have the spending power but they also enjoy the experience of shopping from their homes at any time by using their laptops or smartphones.

The most popular online purchases in 2018 so far are clothes or sporting goods, but household goods, including toys, white goods and furniture, are also increasingly being bought online. Convenience has been identified as the main reason for this surge in online buying, especially by the silver surfers.

The use of credit and debit cards is also more secure than it ever was before. Getting to the high street and finding a parking place is also considered as an avoidable hassle for most people even in countries where public transport is more efficient than it is locally.

More often than not prices quoted on eBay and Amazon are cheaper than those advertised in high street shops that have additional expenses as shop rental charges in prime sites have become prohibitive. Another unpleasant reality in this revolution is that online sellers like Amazon have found ways of paying as little corporate tax as possible, something that physical retail outlets find difficult to do.

Nostalgia has no place in today’s retail revolution

The future for certain physical retail outlets looks bleak. In 2018 the UK is seeing a bloodbath in its high streets. Many retail shops are shutting down and axing jobs. Even popular retailers that have been in existence on Britain’s high streets for many decades are downsizing or closing down and shedding jobs in the process. House of Fraser, Toys R’Us, Mothercare, Carpetright, Poundland and Homebase are some of the retailers that have had to reduce their physical presence in several UK towns.

No regular statistics are available locally to judge how the online revolution is affecting our high street outlets. There is no doubt that buying online is no longer restricted to acquiring books or mobile phones. I understand that Sicilian furniture companies are also providing online services for made-to-measure bedrooms, kitchens, and office furniture.

When people visit Valletta today, they are more likely to do so to have a meal at restaurants run by Italians that have mushroomed in every corner of the capital. Souvenir shops have replaced once popular small retail outlets as demand from cruise line visitors for souvenirs promises better returns for owners.

The local retail outlets that have ventured to provide an electronic platform to sell their goods are generally still not doing enough to exploit their online sales potential. With a few exceptions, local online retailers have unattractive websites that are also not very user-friendly. The attachment to physical outlets is still preventing retailers from adopting the more successful click-and-brick strategy which gives consumers a choice on how to do their shopping.

The number of silver surfers will keep increasing, and their use of online retail facilities is bound to multiply. They may no longer tolerate the hassle of going to our town centres to do their shopping and engage in a little often harmless gossiping with their mates. Jobs in the retail industry will continue to be lost and replaced by IT qualified young people, delivery persons, and customer service personnel dealing with online shoppers queries. Restaurants, large food supermarkets, and personal services retailers like hairdressers will probably be the least affected by the changes in the retail industry.

Other retailers have to invest more in online sales technology and emulate the big online retailers like eBay and Amazon that have endeared themselves to today’s consumers.

Nostalgia has no place in today’s retail revolution.

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