In the face of etailers, brick and mortar retailers show that in-store experience is a powerful resource but that online offer is still key.

Amazon has been trading now for almost 20 years. During that time, it has revolutionised retail as the first and largest online-only merchant. Every one of its traditional competitors has been condemned to oblivion as it laid waste to the world’s traditional malls and high streets.

Except that it hasn’t quite turned out like that – not yet, anyway. While the global economy is far from secure, we appear to have come through the worst of the recession and the physical high street feels more promising and more exciting than it did a few years ago.

Many businesses went to the wall in the Great Shake-Out – Woolworths, Comet, JJB and more. These names have gone for good – but other brands have enjoyed a Lazarus-style resurrection, even in apparently “online-only” sectors such as music and games. Hilco-owned HMV has brought live music and events back to its shops, focusing on the human experience that online vendors just cannot replicate. And Game, born again and refloated on the London Stock Exchange, is developing an omnichannel offer that encompasses exclusive editions and a more stimulating in-store experience, fully integrated with a focused online offer. True specialism can beat ‘the new Sears, Roebuck’.

What these businesses have recognised is that you no longer compete with Amazon by trying to be Amazon – that was a mistake made by the booksellers (including my old business, Borders). Competing with a global leviathan whose investors take a relaxed view of profitability is tough, but now, with online commerce an integral part of our lives, we can see that you compete with Amazon – or Asos, or Not On The High Street – not by copying them, but by differentiating your business and providing what they can’t, while at the same time using all that online data to improve your physical offer.

What this doesn’t mean, of course, is a shops-only strategy – that would be madness. Our own business, Calliope Gifts, is focused on opening quality shops in market towns, selling gifts, homewares, stationery and toys. We use social media, B2C communication and a transactional website to enrich that experience.

Our online sales aren’t going to bother Seattle in the near future, but I know that many of our customers use their phones and tablets to “reverse-showroom”, browsing online before coming to buy in our attractive and friendly shops. We offer good value, but rarely discount – and have happily sold thousands of books (among many other categories) without the need to cut prices.

Building an effective online presence on an indie budget is something I’ve been discussing at Autumn Fair this week; I’m sure there’s a platform to be created which will enable independents to compete online more effectively with the big boys. In physical stores, small businesses can compete with major names thanks to hands-on owners who focus on service, environment and product. The challenge for us is to have an online capability of a similar standard, at a cost we can afford. Any takers?

  • Philip Downer is managing director of Calliope Gifts