Relationships for sale

January 17, 2013 by
Filed under: The RSA, Uncategorized 

Every year I earn a few thousand pounds for the RSA in speaker’s fees. But with the public and third sector ever more financially hard pressed, I often wish my specialist subjects were not public service reform, social innovation and future citizenship but more lucrative, private sector-friendly, themes such as technology and new business models.  If I am to enter the rarified world of the international business guru I need a new and exciting concept to open the door. Maybe today’s blog could be my key to the big time….

I was fascinated to see that Argos has today published impressive results. This is apparently due to to the rise of ‘click and collect’ shopping. It seems that people like the convenience and choice of on-line shopping but also want to pick up their goods in person. The biggest driver may be the hassle involved in being home for deliveries or having to pick them up from a depot (I have never queued for fewer than fifteen minutes at the Post Office parcel centre in Clapham and have simply given up on several occasions).  Other factors may be impatience and, perhaps, the scope to check the item is safe, sound and as ordered before taking it home.

So maybe the death of physical retail is not quite as inevitable as many have been predicting. Indeed, click and collect provides new selling opportunities. Knowing what people have just purchased, stores can offer them reasons to linger – nice spaces, free refreshments – and suggest customers browse associated products (while you’re picking up your new saucepans, how about using your journey to get some cutlery or a recipe book?).

The possible evolution of click and collect into a new form of face to face retailing is reminiscent of other technology-driven processes in which a new business/consumption model arises from the ashes of another. The classic case study is how the access to free (albeit often pirated) on-line music led not to the death of the music industry but to the rise of live performance as the generator of income. Instead of bands going on tours to sell records they record music as a means to sell concert tickets.

Another example is the non-death of watch on broadcast TV. With the internet and technologies like TIVO, the widespread assumption was that everyone would become their own programme scheduler. But while many people do now consume series in the form of box sets not weekly live viewing (as I am right now voraciously doing with the stunning Breaking Bad) the desire to participate in social media conversation has also made it imperative for enthusiasts to watch programmes as they are broadcast. This has been an important factor in the unexpected return to popularity of Saturday night family viewing.

These examples have elements in common. On the one hand, the exaggerated prediction of the demise of an activity which formed social connections between people: shopping, buying records, watching live TV. On the other, the transformation or adaptation of that activity into what is, or what could turn out to be, a more sociable form (going to concerts, chatting on-line while watching, more personalised shopping). Sure, the examples also differ; buying records was not inherently social, nor does click and collect necessarily take us to a more relational form of shopping, but there is enough similarity to wonder if there may be some underlying processes a work here.

So if anyone out there fancies hearing me give an inspiring, ground breaking and amusing talk on the concept of ‘relational displacement in new business models’ (how social relationship hollowed out by technology in one area tend to emerge in a new and often richer form in a parallel area) I am available at reasonable – but not cheap – rates.




  • Nigel Rayment

    Buying records not inherently social? Virgin records started life as very sociable places to hang out and discuss the latest releases. the same remains true of most independent vinyl outlets today. It depends what is being sold. Pure product, or experience to go with it. Check out for instance. Numbers of pubs and cafes have also started running free parcel collection services as a way of drawing in punters for a cup of tea or a pint. The impulse to sociability will prevail in one way or another, I’m sure.

  • Susan J Royce

    Dear Matthew

    You might be interested in this thinking from Fitch (no connection to me at all – I just like the approach) which explores some of the same territory from the customer journey perspective.

    Thanks for the blogs – definitely one of my intellectual ‘five a day’


  • Nigel Kippax

    We appear to be prepared to pay good money for two things here. Firstly to remove hastle and retain personal control of our time e.g. “I’ll collect it thank you!”, and secondly to be part of something social so that we can then be part of the conversations and feel “included” e.g. watching X factor live (not that I do!)

    Two examples on the second point. On the positve: the great success of our local cinema that has succeeded in making film viewing a totally pleasurable experience in lovely surroundings (Rex Berkhamsted). On the negative: the total failure of HMV to stimulate any form of social engagement with music despite virtually the entire population of the earth showing musical interest in one form or another. Surely they missed a wonderful opportunity to create social hubs based on music in a similar way to Waterstones have with Costa to make browsing a book a relaxed and pleasureable (and social) event.
    But then again, high street retail it not my area of expertise.

  • David Wilcox

    Matthew – I think you know I’m going to say something about applying these business modelling insights within RSA as well as on the speaker circuit:-)
    One of the ideas that surfaced back in 2007 at the RSA networks event, and keeps popping up every now and again since, is why can’t the RSA enhance its events “product” with an opportunity afterwards for Fellows to carry on a discussion?
    Now and again there is a sponsored drink in the Vaults but that isn’t the same thing.
    It is important because unless the RSA can offer some additional value to Fellows there isn’t an incentive to stay and pay that sub that helps maintain the event programme …
    We can turn up for free as a non-Fellows, and get it online. Some parallels maybe.
    Who could we talk to on that idea?

  • Nigel Rayment

    I’m with you, David!

  • Robert Burns

    Matthew and others,

    perhaps we should pause of a two minutes silence and mourn the passing of HMV into administration.

    In those moments we should think of Curry’s, Stead and Simpson and Sports Direct.

    Another week in which more of what used to be pluses on the national balance sheet have become minuses.

    Thousands more people out of a job and hundreds more shops standing empty.

    Hundreds of millions in business rates, corporation and payroll taxes not now flowing into local and central government finances to be replaced with increased benefit payments.

    But never mind, if you’ve can afford the personal transport, got online access and a debit/credit card everything’s OK.

    From my experience the ‘click and collect’ thing owes it’s existence more to the unreliability of delivery companies (anyone ever dealt with YODEL?) and cost cutting (if the customer collects, we don’t have to pay to deliver).

    The mentality of the last is the same as what you get at petrol filling stations.

    When you go in to pay the the door opens automatically, when you leave you can damn well open the door yourself because we’ve got your money!

    ‘Click and collect’ is one of those ideas like the ill-fated idea of paying ten pounds to jump the queue at supermarkets: OK as long as it is a minority service, it will break down if significant numbers use it.

    As for turning such activities into ‘social encounter zones': be my guest for the kinds of social encounter you are likely to have.

    Lowered customer service standards, queue rage, security barriers and the inevitable ‘security staff’ to maintain ‘order’ (that is, telling you shut up, get out or physically ejecting you if you complain that the queue is moving slowly or staff are rude to you).

    As for having facilities to ‘linger’ and examine goods before departure, dream on.

    These ‘outlets’ won’t carry replacement stock and will be physically laid out on a “take your stuff and f**k off” design.

    Your experience with Virgin Media and the Clapham Parcel Centre is worth reconsidering.

    They are organizations that have already made the journey to the future you seem to be prophesying as the silver lining in today’s clouds.

  • Robert Burns


    Someone praised Waterstone’s.

    Waterstone’s belong to the same business group as HMV, they have closed many stores over the preceding 18 months and so they are clearly having financial problems and may be the next high street domino to fall in the wake of the HMV liquidation.

  • David Wilcox

    Thanks Nigel for encouragement on the idea of follow-on discussions for Fellows at RSA public events. I should have added that it is one of a number of positive ideas emerging in Linkedin discussion about mission and Fellowship, prompted in part by Matthew’s welcome posts over the past couple of weeks.
    There’s no shortage of ideas among Fellows … but it takes staff action to implement many, and we don’t know if that will be forthcoming.
    Slightly off-topic here? I don’t think so, because I believe membership/Fellowship organisations also have to review their business models. There’s danger in looking at how the outside world is changing, and neglecting the home base.
    The online world of freely-available content, streamed events, and social networking challenges membership organisations to offer something extra.
    RSA is a bit different, because the Fellowship is about making a positive difference in the world, not just paying a fee and getting some benefits. But even there open online is a challenge.
    As another tech-savvy Fellow once said to me … ” the issue in deciding whether or not to remain a Fellow is whether it helps me do any more than I could with my Twitter friends”.
    If the RSA is to grow its Fellowship, both for revenue and as an important way of fulfilling its mission, it needs to recruit more people who see the online world as a natural environment for relationships and action. It needs to provide better support for that than we can find elsewhere, and to blend online with face-to-face events and other activities in a way that only RSA can offer.
    At this point in the conversation (which has now been going on for more than five years within RSA) a member of staff or the Board will say “the RSA technology board is developing new platforms …” and I know that really good work is underway on that. But tech alone isn’t the answer. It has to be integrated with other services, and be supported by substantial investment of staff time on facilitation. So far I haven’t seen much sign of that.
    I hope the Trustee Board touched on some of these issues in its recent awayday, and that we’ll hear the results of discussions from Matthew, the chair, or the seven trustees elected by Fellows.
    I’m sure the RSA will stay afloat … but we should be looking for leaks. At the moment the number of Fellows leaving is just about balanced by those joining, and those making an evident contribution to the mission is relatively small. I often hear Fellows saying “I want to get involved, and contribute, but I can’t see how …”
    If the Board were to engage openly and honestly with these challenges – and involve the Fellowship in developing fresh ideas – then RSA could again lead the way in developing new business models for associations.

  • Nigel Rayment

    No not off-topic at all, David.This is an essential conversation for membership and networking organisations. Of course the emerging on-line opportunities are massively exciting and important. It would be hasty, though, for businesses of any kind to dismiss the value of face-to-face interaction. As an example, my company is about to publish research undertaken in partnership with several financial services organisations, which shows young people (aged 14 and 15) would much rather buy financial products face-to-face than on-line.

  • David Wilcox

    Thanks Nigel. I agree – we need a well-planned blend of face-to-face and online. First steps: follow-on discussions for Fellows at public events, and more Fellows’ networking. Second: consolidate online spaces. I’m suggesting Linkedin as an interim measure

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