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The importance of search to the retail sector

The Christmas shopping season began in earnest at the end of last week, with Black Friday, followed by Cyber Monday, and it will now last through the days after Xmas, when many crummy gifts will be returned for cash or store credit.

The month-long frenzy makes me question the point of it all. Is this the way we celebrate the birth of Christ? You'd think a family dinner would be enough.

The whole affair is designed to make us feel better about humanity. People give gifts to each other to show some sort of appreciation and to prove they are not cheap tight-wads like that guy in accounting. There are countless Xmas parties where people drink too much, if they are lucky.

None of this is new and none of my complaints are original. The only change is that online shopping has crept into the equation. According to early reports, over in the US this year's online sales for Black Friday topped $1 billion (£620 million) for the first time. Much of this went to Amazon.

This major trend was first predicted in the late 1990s. Back then, analysts said that online purchasing was a major threat to the brick and mortar stores due to the lower prices and the wider selection online.

This is hogwash because an online store is merely a mail order catalogue with inferior presentation but the ability to incorporate search. Search is what makes online retailing a serious threat.

The fact that the future of sales lies in search is constantly overlooked by the pundits. While alternative sales channels such as mail order catalogues and TV shopping networks threaten a small portion of the retailing spectrum, they do not incorporate search.

When you shop, it is all about searching. Retailers know this and know it is a struggle. When you grocery shop, you are actually searching for food items. Shopping means "search" if you think about it, and it stems from primitive man hunting for prey in the jungle. Search is synonymous with survival.

Thus, search is a big deal and those most dedicated to it are rich for good reason.

So, the computer has brought us a robotised search. We do not really search at all. We type in what we want and the robot (a.k.a. search engine) does what it can. Imagine how different life would be if all search was done this way. Where are your keys? Just ask!

Serendipitous sales

Where the retailers have an advantage is with the serendipitous sale. Say you are searching for glassware and you walk by an interesting wine glass that you never knew existed. You buy that instead. The online folks try and duplicate this concept with the "Customers who bought this item also bought" feature, but this is a lot different to actually stumbling upon something.

Search also brings instant comparison shopping that makes it easy to get the best price. This is countered by price-matching, which is different.

When the big bricks and mortar retailers figure out that search is important, they will build kiosks that help people find what they want using search. These kiosks could be put online and people could "pre-shop" before going into a major retailer. This pre-shopping would include store maps and routing information. The serendipitous impulse items could be planted along the way.

There are a lot of possibilities that big stores need to consider. I cannot tell you how many times I go into one to buy something and never find what I am looking for. I'm guessing it's there somewhere.

One day in the future, you'll enter a superstore and be greeted by a bank of computers where you can search before you shop.