In 1999, I wrote a paper with the zeal of the converted, about how online shopping was going to kill supermarkets. It wasn’t that I thought everybody would abandon them, it was that I thought most of the profitable customers would, leaving the supermarkets with high fixed costs and unsustainably low margins.
In 2009, I noted that since I had written that paper, Tesco had trebled both its turnover and its profits. That didn’t say much for my forecasting skills, but I concluded slightly folornly that perhaps it was my timing which was wrong in 1999, not my argument.
Now it’s starting to look as though I might have been right all along, with two telling news stories last week. The first is that the relentless growth of big supermarkets may have had its day:
Tesco slashed its UK expansion plans in half with around 110 development sites no longer slated to be turned into supermarkets and a further 40 plots of land next to existing stores were put on the market after store extensions were abandoned.
The second story was all in the headline: UK online grocery sales forecast to double amid shakeup of retail market.
Meanwhile, Tom Loosemore was reflecting not on predicting a change in the world, but on making one happen. It’s ten years since he and a gang of other subversives created They Work For You, which is Hansard on steroids.
In last week’s Spectator there’s an article by Peter Lilley. It is subtitled thus: “Today’s MPs are no longer scared of the whips. Instead, they are scared of their constituents. That’s a good thing.”
The piece heralds the role TheyWorkForYou has played in helping constituents hold their MP to account.
It’s ten years since we started building TheyWorkForYou – a decade’s lag between cause and effect.
There shouldn’t be any surprise about any of this. The first electric motors were replacement steam engines. It took decades for factories to be designed around distributed power rather than centralised power. As Diana Coyle put it, ‘technologies have to be used as well as invented’, before she went on to say:
The error of hype is because new technologies often have such great wow factors. The error of not noticing profound change is precisely because many people find it hard to see the cumulative effect of all the many contextual changes needed for a technology to be widely used.
Famously, Zhou Enlai is said to have responded to a question about the significance of the French revolution by saying, ‘it’s too early to tell’.
Supermarkets are not about to start closing their doors. Parliamentary democracy is not about to collapse or even radically mutate. But the web is only twenty years old. The disruption is just beginning.