Bye bye big box, hello digital!

My friend Mikey (who you may remember from the “Mikey Mobile Adoption Test”) and I were recently driving through our hometown, past a long row of new “big box” retail locations that have recently sprung up.

I, somewhat exasperatedly, said, “Who the hell is going to buy all this stuff?”

Our town’s population is only 120,000 but we seem to have a huge overcapacity of retail space, with more going up all the time, thanks in part to a development hungry First Nations band with plenty of available real estate.

Mikey replied, “Well, the town isn’t getting any smaller and people need to shop somewhere.”

That, and a recent article by MediaPost reporter Laurie Sullivan, got me thinking. Do we? I mean, do we need to shop “somewhere” as in a physical store location.

I paused, and then replied, “I’m not so sure. I buy a lot more things online.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

A few days later, I was in a presentation where someone showed digital marketing growth projections for local advertisers on a slide. The growth over the next few years was relatively moderate – about 5 to 6% year over year. This despite the fact that the current penetration rates were well short of 50%.

Put it all together and I can’t help wondering whether we, collectively, are “sandbagging” our local digital growth potential. Modest growth projections assume fairly linear trends in the future. We use past adoption and extrapolate these into the future. Statistically, it’s probably the rational thing to do, but what it doesn’t take into account is a dramatic shift in behavior. For example, what if we’ve reaching a tipping point where, as Sullivan notes, it’s just a lot easier to shop online than to actually hop in your car, drive across town and then try to navigate through a 25,000 square foot massive retail location?

That’s the way things tend to go in real life. We don’t incrementally change behaviors, we change en mass. And when we do, we trigger massive waves of change that deconstruct and reconstruct the marketplace. I suspect we’re getting close to that tipping point.

Personally I, like Ms. Sullivan, find the physical act of shopping a royal pain in the tuccus. Recently, my wife and I decided to go buy some coasters, those little squares that go under cups on your coffee table. Indiana Jones has embarked on less daunting quests. When we finally found them I reckon that, accounting for my wife and my time at fair market value, those coasters cost somewhere around a thousand dollars. All this for a six dollar set of coasters that I don’t even particularly like (don’t tell my wife)!

We’re to the point now where shopping should be painless – a search, click and buy, then relax and wait for FedEx to deliver. Even local shopping can become massively more efficient through mobile technology. At some point, we have to realize that going to huge retail stores that are built to maximize per visit sales rather than enable you to find what you’re looking for is a horribly inefficient use of our time. And when we do, the current retail paradigm is flipped on its pointy little head. The net impact? Those modest growth curves suddenly shoot for the sky!

And all those big box stores that Mikey and I drove by?

Perhaps bowling will make a sudden comeback. I know several great locations for an alley.

Orig­i­nally pub­lished in Mediapost’s Search Insider November 3, 2011