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From Video Car Man to Mobile Retail Marketing: A Brief History


by on January 25th, 2013

Thirty years or so ago, as the VHS video standard stood triumphantly atop the battered corpse of the vanquished Betamax, thence to make its way into millions of homes in the UK and elsewhere, an interesting retail byproduct was born. Sensing a gap in the market, a plethora of small-time entrepreneurs embraced the Zeitgeist, loaded up their vehicles with as many videocassettes as was humanly possible and delivered unto the masses the cinematic treats that they had not known that they had wanted, but – once available – it transpired that they had been wanting all their lives.

It was a revolution. Younger readers accustomed to a near infinite number of channels and devices on which to receive those channels (even, if, as Springsteen said, they all have nothin’ on) may not fully appreciate this, but for those of us with three or four options at best, this was manna from Heaven. No longer was our early evening entertainment limited to Emmerdale, repeats of the Rockford Files and a peculiar sci-fi quasi gameshow featuring Richard Stilgoe, Janet Ellis and a cactus; suddenly we had Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Airplane, Blazing Saddles and Raiders of the Lost Ark (and that was just on the first night that Video Car Man appeared). Suddenly, we went mad for video: if for whatever reason the man hadn’t turned up in his Citroen Estate, we started suffering withdrawal symptoms.

Anyway, this went on for several summers, during which time, having rapidly exhausted the A-list titles, we were trawling our way through the Eight Million Ways to Dies of this world and wondering if it was really worth it.

But then the dedicated videoshops emerged, with far more shelf space than a Citroen Estate, and Video Car Man was no more. Our local videoshop was, I seem to recall, run by a short moustachioed ex-steelworker called Johnny Brain. However, the empires of Mr Brains nationwide were in turn all too fleeting, as the behemoth of Blockbuster emerged, with yet more shelf space and titles.

And so the wheel turns again. Blockbuster has gone into administration, unable to compete with the Netflixes and LOVEFiLMs of an era in which videocassettes are long gone and which has, for some time, been casting a disapproving eye at DVDs.

Content distribution channels change. This fact is brutal but inescapable. It is also a fact that some retailers are better equipped than others to deal with change. Crucially, some have recognised that that such change does not wholly represent a threat but rather an opportunity, particularly if you are in a position to use those new distribution channels as a way of delivering and/or marketing your product.

So we come to the mobile and the tablet. Increasingly, such devices are being used to purchase physical goods as well as digital content – by 2017, thanks to the rising trend of “couch commerce”, nearly half of eRetail sales in North America and Western Europe are expected to come through mobile and nomadic devices – and this in turn presents an opportunity to use those devices for marketing. This is not merely to aid product discovery, but as a mechanism to aid customer engagement and retention: mobile ads and coupons typically have far higher click-through and redemption rates than their PC equivalents.

Some have recognised this; others have not. For example, a significant proportion of retailer websites are not yet optimised for mobile browsing, let alone mobile payment: for any retailer hoping to use the mobile as a means of marrying their digital and physical assets, this is a fairly fundamental flaw. What is clear, however, is that attitudes are changing, and that marketing spend is migrating to mobile: $28 billion last year, rising to $55 billion by 2015.

Mobile and tablet devices may indeed be an indirect causation of the High Street’s travails, but one cannot blame them for it, or indeed – having blamed them for it – then try to continue as if the wheel has not turned. That way lies madness – or at least administration. Rather, by embracing the mobile channels, the retailer has the potential not merely to increase retail footfall, but also (through analytics) understand the consumer better and thereby enhance the prospects of future sales. Thus, hopefully, of ensuring their future on the High Street.

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