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The new synergies of shopping: E-commerce or ‘bricks and mortar’?

For many, a day of shopping is a favourite pastime, as so eloquently inferred by the fictional character we quote this month. Shopping perceived as a leisure activity really only came into being during the 1980s and 1990s, as free time and disposable incomes zipped upwards following a credit-flushed economic boom that defined the age. Consumer spending became an extremely important component to analyse when measuring an economy’s overall state and future prospects.

“Shopping is my cardio” – Carrie Bradshaw, ‘Sex and the City’

However, over recent years, fears have grown about the health and continued viability of city centre or out-of-town ‘bricks-and-mortar’ shops. The very phrase has only become widely used since the rapid growth of e-commerce beginning in the early 2000s. The rise of e-commerce is seen by many as a wonderful convenience, where you can shop to your heart’s content from the comfort of your own home, whilst for others it represents a scythe that is mowing down traditional in-person shops (both independent and cherished national chains) and, as a consequence, the wider local and urban economies that depend on them. In Europe, e-commerce has grown tremendously over the past few years and some of the world’s most sophisticated e-commerce markets are found in the EU-27, such as France and the Netherlands. Indeed, household and individual survey data collected at the beginning of 2020 and presented by Eurostat in January 2021 estimated that 7 out of 10 internet users from the 12 months prior made online purchases in the same period. The survey also showed that the youngest respondents were the most eager and frequent of online shoppers. The COVID effect has also played a major role in the fortunes of e-commerce over the past year as many people turned to online orders due to the closing of physical stores. But, according to a recent report by Ecommerce Europe, the impact of the virus on e-commerce is more nuanced than it first appears. Their latest survey report published in January 2021 argues that whilst many sectors saw strong online sales, others (such as online travel and ticket sales retailers) saw significant decreases. Nonetheless, the broad expectation is that COVID-19 will result in a huge and permanent leap forward for e-commerce that otherwise could have taken another 5-10 years to take without the pandemic. So, is there a future for ‘bricks-and-mortar’ stores or are they destined to be steamrollered by a relentless e-commerce juggernaut in the post-COVID landscape? In an attempt to provide clarity, this special feature of Research*eu showcases seven EU-funded projects, some of which have focused their work on what could be viewed as the e-commerce side of the issue and others on the ‘bricks-and-mortar’ side. As in so many cases, innovative technologies appear to be the key. From using robots and other digital tech in indoor shopping centres and supermarkets to improve the customer’s experience (and thus to entice them through the door) to new tools to help make e-commerce an even easier experience, perhaps the question we ask at the top of this page – e-commerce or ‘bricks and mortar’? – isn’t as black-and-white as one may have initially thought. Perhaps it’s not a simple zero-sum ‘one or the other’ but in fact there’s space for both to be able to hold their own and complement each other in the post-COVID world. Of course, only time will tell. Finally, you may have noticed that we have now reached our 100th issue of Research*eu magazine. We're very pleased to arrive at this milestone and to celebrate, we wrote a special article looking back on the evolution of Research*eu over the past ten years, its roots and some of our proudest achievements. You can also check out the celebratory postcard that was included with every print subscriber's copy of issue 100, designed to highlight and showcase the very people who make Research*eu possible - of course, our EU-funded researchers, scientists and entrepreneurs, working tirelessly to expand human knowledge and innovation to make Europe (and the world) a better place. We look forward to receiving your feedback. You can send questions or suggestions to editorial@cordis.europa.eu.

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