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Web sales take off

30 May 2005

Last month figures were released which showed that in the UK internet shopping overtook purchases from mail order catalogues for the first time. Last Christmas web sales in Britain rose by 20% over the previous year to £3 billion. In the US the trend is changing even faster and the comparative figure was 28%. Visa International recently estimated that global e-commerce sales grew last year by a whopping 56% to £79 billion ($150 billion).

Jeremy Warner, writing in the Independent, pointed out that: 'In growing numbers, customers go to the shops only to browse and select. They then return to the home and at the click of the mouse buy their pre-selected goods online... For how much longer will the high street be willing to act as just a shop window for the online purveyors? The internet always had the power to undermine traditional retailing. There's some evidence that it is now beginning to happen.’

Books have always been in the forefront of web selling, so perhaps the book business, already used to accommodating the meteoric growth of Amazon, will be less obviously affected by the growth in Internet retail. Clearly, book buyers do like to browse in bookshops and for those who still feel that this is a treat, Amazon, for all its online reviews, ‘if you liked this, then you’ll like this…’ and ‘Look inside the book’ does not compare.

As long as bookshops compete on price, they can avoid the fate of purveyors of computer equipment, for example, who seem doomed to a decline in their big ticket business by the ease of comparative pricing and purchase on the Internet. But certain kinds of bookselling, such as student textbooks, are acutely sensitive to Internet selling, particularly as regards secondhand books. For others, there’s a new opportunity. The trail blazed by Amazon can be followed by niche booksellers of all kinds, who can use cheaper technology and a global market to sell to a specialist audience.

There’s no room for complacency though, and fortune will continue to favour those who are quick on their feet and prepared to adapt to technological developments, a changing market and the ever more demanding requirements of their customers.