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The growth of direct vs the death of retail

I’m going to show my age, forgive me. Do you remember ‘Relight my fire’ by Take That, Shaggy’s ‘Oh Carolina’ or ‘I’d do anything for love’ by Meatloaf? All 1993 hits. You might be too young to remember them.

Two amazing things happened in 1993. First, I became a father for the first time. Second, someone walked me through an IT lab and said “Hey, we’ve invented this thing called the internet and we aren’t sure what to do with it, got any ideas?”

At the time, direct marketing was grubby and seedy and struggled to get onto the radar, let alone get budget. It was considered the domain of Readers Digest and Which? Magazine with prize draws and inserts flopping out of newspapers. I’m talking about the 1990s.

My daughter is now 26, and direct has come of age to such a point that digital is threatening the atomic world. What do I mean?

Over the last 12 months we have seen the collapse of Topshop and Debenhams, and the disappearance of John Lewis and other major brands from our high streets, all of which have been stalwarts of the last 26 years, while deliveries arriving at the doors of the nation have gone through the roof. Ocado, BooHoo, Amazon – none of this existed 26 years ago.

BooHoo, Ocado, Amazon – that’s direct and digital. Google, direct and digital. Even Sky can now target advertising directly to my box during the TV breaks.

Whose hands are grubby now?

But this isn’t an article about history, this is a thought about the future. The challenge is what does tomorrow look like? What does direct do next?

There are a number of changes coming to our future selves during the next 26 years that have been exponentially shoved by the pandemic.

One of the next big trends we can already see playing through is in the area of Media. Remember that Sky box sending me personalised ads? Add Netflix showing me programmes that are similar to those I already have seen. The constant demand for my attention (and my wallet) means that there is a constant need for those who wish to relieve me of the burden of my cash are increasingly looking to use direct marketing technique to help their cause. The blurring of the line between what is selling and what is entertainment will change over the next few years. And with that will come a blurring of the line between what is retail, what is entertainment, what is digital and what is atomic.

Shopping on a high street is an atomic experience, atoms interact with atoms. Our consumer society has increasingly come to replace ‘entertainment’ with ‘consumption’. My 26 year old used to meet up with her mates at the mall. It wasn’t because they needed anything, they just wanted something to do as a communal activity. And this is where digital and direct actually might be the saviour of the atomic high street.

Over the course of lockdown we have seen a massive growth of ‘small’, whether it is an artisanal baker that delivers food direct to my door, a passionate cook who starts a dark kitchen and launches on Deliveroo, or the mask maker designing and selling unique personalised masks through Etsy. All of this is facilitated by digital.

As we begin to unlock, there is a real opportunity to bring atomic experience to this new-found passion for small. There is a major opportunity to deliver real experiences where you interact with the people behind the brand. It is something that can start online, carry through into a physical experience, and return to on-line again. It is also a dramatically different proposition from Amazon and Ocado, no matter how much I like my Ocado driver.

Add into this the opportunity to use some of the empty, central space, to reinvent what entertainment is, delivering atomic experiences that enhance, enrich and engage with digital experiences.

Direct marketing, executed well, has a real opportunity to lead us out of lockdown and I firmly believe that the opportunity for us as an industry is as big as the opportunity that I saw when someone asked the question “got any ideas?” about what to do with the internet.

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