This year, shopping is about to get a whole lot trickier. Despite the classic supermarket wrangles about whether or not to peruse the fresh-cream doughnuts, or shut your eyes at the counter and run straight to the place where low-fat cereals live, people are now going to have to add IT to their shopping list. Or, at least, that's what supermarket giants such as Tesco and Asda want people to do.
During the last six months of 1998, supermarkets made deals with IT manufacturers to get notebooks right up there on the aisles between bog roll and vegetarian vindaloos. Sainsbury's and Bradford supermarket chain Morrisons are the latest high-street stores to join the ever-growing list of general stores planning to cash in on the IT cash cow. Sainsbury's ran a pilot scheme flogging PlayStations at its Savacentres over the silly season, but has no plans (yet) to offer them or any other IT in its main stores. Morrisons is alleged to be planning a hardware and software pilot during 1999. Soon, McDonalds will be giving away PCs with every 1,000 Big Macs bought, but only if it has enough burgers, of course.
It may sound funny - the concept of supermarkets selling hi-tech equipment - but it should be viewed as a serious threat. These are very big companies, with hundreds of stores in prime locations all over the UK, that can claim to have the vast majority of the buying public on their premises at least once a week. One can laugh off the threat by claiming that supermarkets don't have the expertise to sell computers or software, but expertise can be bought just like anything else. Apparently, people with PC expertise and technical skills don't actually explode when they are hired by a non-IT company.
Look at any of the established high-street players and you will see that they all made big mistakes at the outset (poor technical staff, not enough kit, abysmal support), but that didn't stop them or dent their reputations too badly. Today, even though still plagued by some of the aforementioned problems, they are a force to be reckoned with. In addition, they are no longer happy with just selling kit to the consumer, but are greedily eyeing up the SME sector. So, the argument about needing years of experience and technical know-how to succeed with IT doesn't hold water.
Supermarkets can make it happen. They will work with partners, acting like a huge shop window displaying inexpensive (allegedly) computer and software deals. Considering the captive audience of all those that have to eat, it's a very powerful platform to kick off any IT charge. Take, for example, the supermarket drive into clothing which ended up with jeans giant Levi's taking Tesco to court for selling its kit cheaper than Levi's own stores.
Despite that hiccup, stores such as Tesco and Asda have taken a chunk of the clothing pie. Now, electronics retailers are freaking out because Asda is selling cheap TVs and videos. IT supermarket-style is just the next step. Like the numerous high-street players, IT in supermarkets will be consumer-only to start with, but how long will it be before Tesco launches its Small Business Specials? When (not if) supermarkets do this, it will spell disaster for certain aspects of the channel.
This year will see supermarkets move beyond small, localised pilots to larger, nationwide projects. It may take the consumer time to catch on, but supermarkets, like Microsoft, market products not with subtlety but with a giant mallet. And they won't stop bashing until people are hitting the checkouts with a notebook wedged between the red wine and the Weetabix.
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