Is it conceivable that some day in the future we will be able to visit retail facilities like shopping malls without leaving the comfort of our homes? I would dare to suggest that this is not at all inconceivable. Recent and certainly and ever accelerating technological advancements have made this type of project possible. At the alpha or prototype development phase such technologies exist. An example of this is the “Twister”, which allows users to experience a three-dimensional, true-to-life reality of their travel plans and wishes through the use of multimedia virtual reality technologies and the Internet. What are the reasons that would possibly make it a compelling case for a company to embark on such a project and the shopper to support it commercially? Would such a project find place in the retail space and possibly create competition for shopping facilities? Well, let us briefly look at the retail environment over the past few years.

The recent financial crisis, which has recently started to look like it would be making a return, has devastated many jobs and slashed many disposable incomes through job losses. Consumers have as a result opted to reduce their spending drastically, if not by force. Tied to the financial crises of individuals, travel to the retail facility is increasingly being seen as a luxury. Most retail facilities are well designed in terms of parking facilities and the entry and exit thereof, whereas others are just a major challenge and a headache. For those that are more environmentally conscious, the prospect of putting more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is most repugnant if one can do most of their shopping online.

The article entitled “Online boom set to boost SA commerce” which was published on page eight of the Sunday Times of 8th August 2011 provides some evidence of the online shopping phenomenon that is sweeping the South African shopping landscape. A most recent article was published on http://www.eprop, the trusted and one of the most frequented property websites in South Africa entitled The Online Retail Red Herring? This title might be a bit misleading as the fact of online shopping is a reality, even as the content therein attests to such.

In 1995, probably earlier, the Internet spread much fear and anxiety among many property owners, investors and retailers alike. They started to imagine a world where their customers would stop patronising their facilities, preferring instead to do all their shopping via the Internet. Back then, the internet was still in its infancy. Data was extremely expensive and browsing speeds were nothing like the kind of speeds we are getting today, and these need to improve some more. The Telkom monopoly was well-entrenched and the industry was completely hamstrung. The industry has now been deregulated to some extent and new players are bringing about increased competitiveness. Whereas this fear may have been overstated then, now it should be taken a bit more seriously.

The following maps illustrate the proliferation of data cables that have recently been landed on our shores. We have all been watching much excavation taking place on our pavements as the fibre network is being extended in rapid fashion in line with the submarine cables. The satellite footprint on the continent is also spreading, albeit with some latency issues. The alternatives are starting to become widely available. Seacom has recently reported that it will invest some R100 million in their submarine cable due to increasing demand. On the other hand, access to this increasing capacity is being facilitated by the latest technologies consumer devices like smartphones and tablets. The cherry on top is that these gadgets are getting better and simpler to use.

Submarine Cables To South Africa

 

 

 

 

 

Satellite Footprint – Southern Africa

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The reality that now faces retailers and investors alike is that in addition to the risk factors that impact on the sustainable lifespan of a new building now include economic obsolescence arising as a result of technological advancement. The concept of “online retail morphology” is increasingly looking like a reality. Internet hotspots are proliferating. There is now talk of a wireless Internet standard the could make a 31000 kilometre radius hotspot possible. Whilst it seems like a long shot idea, who is to say that some or other company could not take advantage of such an idea and make profitable business out of it? The concept of Cloud Computing has started to gain a foothold on the South African business landscape. For example a recent article spoke about a relationship that was entered into between an online shopping website and a leading regional supermall in Gauteng. This company, Africa Trade Route, proposes a “cloud computing” type of concept, whereby they “offer space to existing shop owners…who want to penetrate the online market”.

Retailing seems to be “morphing” online, slowly but surely. There is no need for it to happen at the expense of retail facilities.