I want to buy x and I want it now

Customers required

The shops near you hold stock available to you right now. Amazon’s drones are not here yet. The quickest way to acquire something and actually hold it in your hands remains the local shops. They are a repository of goods carefully curated by local business people to match what they hope will be items desired by people currently or soon to be nearby. Amazon may say people who bought whatever you’ve just bought also bought x, y or z. This notion of recommendation is nothing new. Those local shops try to match what they can sell with what local people and visitors will buy. Fashions come and go and so to do shops. Collectively though they still aim to sell what people will buy. Amazon has items you can buy as “add-on” items because individually the sale and delivery of the item is not profitable enough. The local shops have their own blend of managing profitability.

Shopping can be an experience, a journey exploring the delights on offer, sharing it along the way on social media. It can be a chore, a purely practical step, when you are restocking toilet rolls or buying milk. It can be a chore in the sense of it being a painful, tedious or effortful process such as when looking for something specific that would be very convenient to have right now. Secondly, there’s something satisfying about being able to buy and take away something there and then if it’s just the right thing - particularly so when it’s something to discuss and touch and feel before purchase.

Physical retail has so much to offer and so much that is different from online retail.

For the chore of shopping to be an efficient activity, online has a clue on how to do that. Online you can search and browse rapidly. Physical retail doesn’t offer that. Yet. For efficiency reasons the ideal would be to identify rapidly which shop has what you want to buy. Some shops offer personal shoppers but they seem rare and only relevant to a tiny minority. Moreover they are specific to a shop or department store.

I was in Stratford, East London for a business meeting. It was late autumn and the floors were cold at home. I had offered to buy slippers for my young son thinking Stratford had plenty of shops including a massive shopping mall and it was the time of year others too must surely be interested in slippers. It wasn’t like I was trying to buy daffodils in July. Perhaps slippers are more niche than I imagined. I asked a mother with a similarly aged toddler in tow - she had no ideas. I asked in some shoe shops, they had none. One suggested the expensive crocs stall - not what I was after. Many years ago I had marvelled at how my father’s obscure request in an ironmongers was met with a ‘just a minute, I’ll fetch them, how many do you need?’. Search works if you can ask someone and that person is familiar with the current stock. No such luck in Stratford. Cold feet until the Amazon cycle concluded.

Imagine using your mobile phone to send out a brief description (“slippers for five year old boy”) and receiving back messages from relevant shops. You then continue the dialogue with the shops you consider most relevant. Hopefully, you then visit the shop, see how the item looks and feels and come away with the right item, bought and in your hands right now. Perhaps too with one or two other items that caught your eye when in the shop.

The model suggested here is platform providing a vehicle for the shopper to state a desire and the shops to respond with suggestions to meet that desire. It is an exchange for matching shoppers with retail outlets likely to be relevant to them. It relies on the shops responding by nominating one or more employees to field the requests and reply accordingly. The benefit to the shops is, hopefully, a sale but also a visit and increased positive perception.

How much time do employees (or owners) at retail outlets have to spare? If they’re busy then they don’t need to respond to incoming requests from the platform - they are busy already but may, nonetheless, choose to respond later when they have a moment. if they’re not busy then they have a choice on how to spend the time - they can’t be busy with customers the entire day but they do have to restock shelves and, presumably, numerous other tasks that are not so time-critical. It can be a choice or policy for the company.

Would people use it? It would rely on enough retailers joining in and enough people using it for retailers to bother setting up to use it. It is a case of there is no party until there is more than one there. One route to consider is to target independent retailers that have an active organisation representing them in a small city along with promotion to shoppers in local press.

It might seem a crazy idea. It seems crazy it’s so hard to find what you need when you’re sure it’s in one of the shops nearby. Maybe the drones will arrive but even then physical retail continues to offer something different.

What do you think?