Jeff Jarvis recently wrote an interesting article "The Great Restructuring" in which he said, " Large-scale retail will shrink and consolidate and then be transformed by a search-and-buy economy."
I think he may be on to something. It certainly applies to our family.
It takes too much gas and too much valuable time visiting distant stores to buy necessities. If we can't buy something from our local merchants, we order using the Internet.
As a result, much of what we buy, other than food, is purchased online. We search for it on Google, price it on a dozen sites, and order it online. If it is an appliance or something similar we can have it delivered to a store for pickup at our convenience.
I think the search-and-buy economy will even transform local shops and individual craft outlets. If your business is visible on the Internet and comes up promptly when someone searches "needed service + your town", you are part of the search-and-buy economy. If people have to look you up in the phone book or in the paper, it is a lot harder to locate you.
Our family buying patterns have changed so much over the past 8 years that it's hard to remember how different life was in 2001.
Back then, most of what we bought was found in area retail stores. We had DSL back then, but it was mainly used for email and web surfing for information.
Today, no store can hold the vast array of products that are readily available on the Internet. Buyers using the Internet bypass and disrupt the traditional distribution system of Manufacturer-to-Distributor-to-Wholesaler-to-Retailer-to-Customer.
Retailers and individual buyers can find helpful suppliers at several points on the supply chain for almost every product. New businesses are constantly springing up online to provide repackaging of commodity products into smaller lots that individuals and small businesses want.
These online middlemen are found on Ebay and all over the Internet. They provide competitive pressure on wholesalers and retailers alike. They buy pallet loads of products and sell them off in smaller lots and as individual items.
Some manufacturers are getting in the game themselves. I recently purchased some ready made frames from a company that has created three divisions with different names to handle sales at different levels. One division only sells quantities of 100 or more of each item. Another division handles quantities less than 100. The third division provides retail service and high speed delivery at a higher price point. All divisions sell the same items but they are set up to handle three types of customers. The websites prominently display links to each of the other divisions.
People who use the Internet to buy things soon start looking at how the Internet can help them sell things. The most interesting aspect of the search-and-buy economy is that business owners with websites can see what people are searching for and use that information to tweak their business plans.
Think of it this way, online customers broadcast their needs every time they search. If someone lands on your website because of a search term and it isn't quite what you offer, you could invite them to leave a suggestion for additional products.
Your website doesn't have to have a shopping cart. It can be a portfolio site to educate and enlighten prospective customers. It opens the door to an email or telephone dialogue between merchant and customer. Sales happen when such a dialogue exists.
In fact, I often leave comments on sites to let the owner know how I felt about my buying experience. Online shopping seems to give buyers more opportunity to interact with business owners than in most retail stores. That may be another reason for the growth of the search-and-buy economy.