Blog: Online, the economy dominate day one at World Retail Congress

Sam Webb | 26 September 2011

The first day of the World Retail Congress, held in the rather splendid environs of Berlin's InterContinental Hotel, was largely taken up with two major themes – online consumer behaviour and the uncertain economic climate in Europe and beyond.

In a breakfast briefing, Peter Gold, executive director of CB Richard Ellis, announced the key findings of a pan-European assessment of online consumer behaviour that polled 10,000 people across ten countries.

Some of the results were expected. Consumers in north-west Europe are more likely to shop online than the countries in the east and south of the continent, as shown by the fact that 58% of people in the UK shop online, whereas in Russia just 5% do. However, the discrepancey could change, according to multichannel expert Tony Stockil, CEO of the Javelin Group. He said that online purchasing, as evidenced by the growth of online grocery delivery, is more developed in the UK for various reasons involving geography, connectivity and wealth but those countries lagging behind will soon catch up.

He said: "The situation will change. Everybody is heading in the same direction, just at different rates." More from him later.

There were also warnings about engaging with consumers online, which can be fraught with complication and confusion. Who are you trying to reach? Are they shopping on their phones or at home? Are they browsing online and buying in-store? The good news is the tools are there to unravel the digital knot, as evidenced by the presence of business analytics firm SAS and Oracle Retail, companies that we will also hear more from on just-food over the coming days.

Despite the warnings, a digital strategy can't be ignored or half-hearted. Mike Shearwood, the CEO of Aurora Fashions, was among the panel at the breakfast briefing. His message is that an online presence is a vital component of engaging with the next generation of consumers – whether it's fashion or groceries.

He said: "Consumers are changing. The young have grown up in a world of pure connectivity and the pace of change will only accelerate. If retailers don't have that technology, the new consumer will not shop with them – it's part of their life."

His words may resonate with all food retailers looking to establish themselves in the online sphere.

Onto the economy, a perhaps slightly less than optimistic subject given recent events, although not without some murmurings of hope from the speakers at the WRC.

Dr Ira Kalish, director of global research at Deloitte, spoke about the slowdown in the global economy and the surrounding its future.

“Is it the end of the crisis or the end of the recovery?" he asked. Dr Kalish did, however, cautiously highlight the opportunities presented by India, driven by increased consumer spending and favourable demographics, as well as the emerging dragon that is China.

Over the next few days I'll be reporting from the Congress and providing some insight into the challenges and opportunities for grocery retailers from some of the most influential experts in their respective fields. Keep checking in.


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