‘All retailers are at risk from the internet’

Fiona Ellis-Chadwick
Fiona Ellis-Chadwick

Everyone who sells products or services to customers is at risk if they don’t grasp the challenge of the internet.

That was the consensus of opinion at a business breakfast at the Open University’s Business School in Milton Keynes this morning (Thursday).

“All retailers are under threat,” said Dr Fiona Ellis-Chadwick, senior lecturer in retail management at the OU. “Nobody can sit on their laurels. It is all about going where the customers are and asking the question ‘do I know how to run a retail business... in a digital environment’.”

She added even fashion businesses, which have relied on a belief that customers wanted to “try before they buy”, were wrong. “The online fashion retailer ASOS has proved that,” she added.

The news has been full in the past few months of retailers who, according to market-watchers, have failed to fully grasp the impact the internet is having.

DVD rental firm Blockbusters yesterday joined HMV, Jessops and Comet in calling in the administrators with thousands of jobs at risk.

Fredi Nonyelu, of the Milton Keynes technology forum Biztech, warned firms: “Don’t bury your head in the sand because change will happen.

“You’ve got to be in there, trying things, being amongst it. If you don’t try, you are a goner.”

The business breakfast meeting was even told that the education sector was seeing a sea change in the way people are learning. Course material is going online for free, putting even universities and colleges at risk. There’s even a word for it; ‘freemium’ where premium content is given away for free.

Martin Bean, the Aussie Vice-Chancellor of the OU, said when the internet decides to disrupt, nothing can stand in its way. And he said a tipping point came last year when courses were placed online in the United States.

The Vice-Chancellor said: “We have reached a Napster moment in higher education and 2012 was the year it accelerated. It is totally going to change the way change the way students think about the market for education.” The OU is one of the partners of Futurelearn, where British universities have collaborated to offer online courses.

The OU holds regular business breakfasts to get across the message that its research can help businesses do better.

Colin Fox, chief executive of the Milton Keynes and North Bucks Chamber of Commerce, said these were “challenging times”. He added that once businesses let market trends get ahead of them, it may be too late to catch up.

“Some of the businesses that have gone into administration seem not to have done enough,” Mr Fox added. The Chamber runs seminars on social media that have proved very popular, he said.

> What do you think? Is any retailer immune to the impact of the internet? Leave your comments below.