In cyberspace no one can feel an earthquake
28 April 2011
Most of you are probably aware that here in Christchurch we’ve recently experienced some major seismic interruptions to ‘business as usual’. This has been pretty noticeable in Lyttelton, where I live. There are very few commercial premises that are actually safe and usable in the wake of the quakes. Sadly this also applies to bars, so I recently found myself at the bar of the local working men’s club, which has opened to non-members since there’s nowhere else for us to go.
I got talking to a neighbour, Simon, who has a business selling high-end designer furniture. I knew that his premises had suffered damage, so I expressed my commiserations about the general disruption and downturn in sales that must have followed. ‘Oh don’t worry about it’, he replied, ‘it’s worked out really well. This has proved what we already suspected, that keeping shop is a waste of time. We don’t really get many sales from the showroom. The real result of the whole mess is that we’ve been able to get out of our lease. It’s pretty good, actually!’
I was delighted to hear this, but still rather surprised. I asked him exactly what he meant. He replied that prior to the quake they were selling over 60% online through their website, mainly out of town – and that the main result of the quakes was that now their local customers were also ‘visiting’ their online showroom and as a result online sales were now over 80% and growing.
‘We just need a small warehouse’ he explained. ‘I’m sorting that out now. Any customers who really want to see our products in the flesh can go there by appointment – so we’re completely free of the need to keep shop hours: more time for fishing and drinking!’ And drink he did, with a broad smile of contentment like we haven’t seen often enough lately.
I swear, with my hand on my heart, that this exchange really took place – purely by chance, in a local bar. I say this because it totally confirms my own prejudices and beliefs about the power of a good website to drive all sorts of businesses, including furniture sales. While I was surprised by what Simon told me, this was mainly because I hadn’t thought of him as an enthusiastic adopter of new technologies, and I was unsure if customers at his end of the market (low volume, high value) would embrace online shopping.
This story also conveniently confirms one of my other recent concerns – what can we learn from this disaster that will help us live better and more sustainably in future? Shortly after the big quake in February I was interviewed on Lyttelton’s community radio station. The discussion was on two main topics, improvised toilets, and urban recovery planning. On the latter topic I was pretty clear, that the first step in the new development was to ensure that the whole city had a more workable transport and communication infrastructure (light rail and fibre-optic broadband, please). And after that I said I was sure that we need to direct our economic growth towards leveraging our technology, communication and information skills to build better businesses.
Simon’s designer furniture experience is an example of how even small-scale enterprises can do that by harnessing the power of online sales. He’s got a pretty good website, which allows customers to contact the business if they want to, or else to simply order the item they want to buy. They don’t have to negotiate our currently terrible roads, they don’t have to worry about whether the business premises really are safe, and they don’t even have to waste time whether trying to find a working cash machine within a mile of their shopping destination. No wonder they’re lining up to buy from Simon, he’s one of the few in his business sector who was already prepared to respond to the challenge of post-disaster business conditions.
There’s a lesson there for all of us, one that I’ve started discussing with my colleague Greg Comfort, who has a few ideas of his own. I’ll report more on this discussion shortly.