Unlike most traditional stores, there are no barriers preventing e-retailers from selling to inebriated shoppers. Photo: Penny Stephens
Shopping 'til you drop is taking on new meaning, with a late-night tipple loosening the purse strings of a growing number of online shoppers.
While alcohol has a way of insinuating itself into every social and recreational occasion in Australia, shopping was once spared, thanks to opening hours that tended not to overlap too much with beer o'clock.
But with e-commerce in full stride, that's no longer the case. Shopping While Intoxicated, or SWI, has probably tilted the retail playing field in Australia far more in favour of e-commerce than the tax-free threshold on offshore internet purchases is ever likely to.
Online retailers have observed for some time the rise in late-evening shopping, sometimes lasting until the wee hours of the morning. Some of that is alcohol-driven.
But the store always finds a way to fight back.
Now, to improve the shopping experience in its physical stores, some high-end US grocery chains such as Whole Foods and Wegmans are housing beer and wine bars in many of their stores.
And some are even allowing shoppers to sip their beverages while shopping the aisles. One of them is a Whole Foods supermarket in an upmarket suburb of Washington, D.C. that serves six different kinds of beer on tap and doesn't mind a bit if the shopper strolls the store with his or her drink.
The idea of housing a coffee and wine bar in a supermarket has become popular for good reasons. These add-ons make grocery stores genuine social destinations rather than just places associated with a boring weekly chore.
Moreover, a relaxed, happy customer is more likely to spend, both on himself and his family and friends. This is what the late-night online retailers have discovered.
Of course, in Australia, as in some states of the US, there are regulatory barriers to grocery stores selling alcoholic beverages.
No such barriers prevent e-retailers selling to drunk online shoppers.
One survey in the UK revealed that almost half of all British citizens had shopped online after drinking and one in five didn't remember the following morning that they had even made a purchase. They only found out when a strange package was left at the door or when the lucky recipient of their largesse called to thank them.
Favourite items shopped under the influence? Clothes and accessories, entertainment media, lingerie, food and drink, show tickets beauty products, holidays and toys.
When considering the benefits of targeting the inebriated, retailers confront several obstacles. One is the ethical one – they probably shouldn't be trying to do it at all.
The second is the practical marketing challenge. How to design an effective marketing campaign that targets inebriated shoppers, other than to have late-night promotions on specific items known to titillate the tipsy.
The third challenge is how to deal with those returns when buyer's remorse sets in.
Despite these problems, alcohol and shopping are no longer destined to be kept at arms length, not just in online stores but in physical ones too. As retailers strive to combat e-commerce by offering a more pleasant shopping experience and making their physical stores more compelling destinations, alcohol will inevitably enter the mix of options.
Some will recoil, but the American experience has so far been positive and Australia will eventually follow.
Michael Baker is principal of Baker Consulting and can be reached at email@example.com and www.mbaker-retail.com.