I was visiting some charity shops recently and had a thought about how to give them a boost – and the whole high street.
Real physical shops face a lot of competition from online retailers. These encompass everything from independent sellers to charity shops that just collect all manner of bric-a-brac. I think the big thing that hampers these stores is the lack of convenience when checking what is in stock.
Perhaps they could get away with having a basic website with an address on it, and that might be enough for a search engine to index. Then they would be visible on maps for local shoppers, but that still wouldn’t make the contents of their stores easily accessible and browsable. Certainly nothing compared to the big stores with an online presence.
Online-only retailers have their entire stock available through a website, and many nationwide chain stores do too. This lets you check if something is in stock, lets you reserve it, or just have it delivered directly to you at no great cost. Independent retailers could probably respond via email or a phone call to discuss stock available for purchase, but that’s not easy. Certainly not compared to the seconds it would take to just check a website.
Maintaining such a website is no simple task, so it isn’t feasible for smaller independent retailers or charity shops who have to run on a budget. It would be nice if there was some kind of open online stock browser for this kind of retailer. With an open interface, they could plug whatever existing stock management they use directly into it.
While this wouldn’t suddenly make it cost-effective for these small retailers to offer delivery of goods, it would make a whole lot of other things possible:
- Web indexers could now find these goods and display them alongside the big name retailers – making it easier for people to find local alternatives to support.
- You could find in advance if a shop has a particular thing you’re looking for before you head out to buy – saving you time and not testing your patience.
- Small shops which have limited store space could make their entire stock visible – if there’s something not on the shop floor that you still want to buy, now you know it exists.
- It could offer a cheap and fast way of managing a reservations system – you could even pay online via card or a mobile payment system and just collect your items when you visit the store.
- A centralised system would mean that individual shops wouldn’t need to worry about managing it – just keeping it up to date with what’s in stock.
Of course, such a solution would have difficulties:
- Who should pay for it? These groups of retailers don’t have a lot of free cash to throw around. If they did, they’d have their own online websites by now.
- How to interface with all the current stock management methods? There will be a massive array of different software in use, and probably a great many shops that still manage stock manually on pen and paper.
- How to stop whoever manages the website from taking over? The centralised nature would be a big selling point of such a website, but it would be a difficult task to keep it fully independent and working in the best interests of the small businesses that use it.
My instinct would be to say that an open source solution would be best, certainly in terms of helping set it up initially and support stock management interfaces. But the problem of keeping it hosted and running can’t be avoided – that would take a lot of resources no matter how you distribute the development of such a system.
Maybe there’s something to be said for keeping a traditional shopping experience, but with so many big companies taking over people’s shopping habits online I think it gets increasingly difficult for smaller retailers to compete. Having an easily available stock browsing website for all the independent retailers out there would be a great way to compete with the big name retailers.