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Is the internet key to the survival of Croydon businesses?

WHILE the internet is often accused of killing the high street, the capital's business leaders last week called on shopkeepers to get online or face decline. But does being part of the web distract from these shops' main point – their place in our local community? Lucie Potter discussed the issue with local traders... "WITHOUT the internet the business wouldn't survive."

Product and marketing manager Greg D'Addio at Cycling Made Easy in Coulsdon has no doubts about the importance of an online presence.

In fact, he is so convinced that he has spent the past year developing the electric bike store's website – aware that customers in a niche market will do extensive web research before buying.

"If we didn't have our website we would have to rely on just word of mouth. We're electric bike specialists, so what we do is quite specific," said Mr D'Addio.

"About two-thirds of our business comes from the internet," he added.

The most up-to-date research suggests 86 per cent of consumers browse online before going to a shop to make a purchase.

But not all traders are convinced about the web.

"The problem with the internet is that it's faceless," explained Keith Harris, the owner of Keith Harris Carpets and Flooring in Purley. "Our industry is a tactile one, people want to feel and touch our products."

Testament to Mr Harris's claims is the fact that 90 per cent of his business comes in the form of repeat custom.

And Gina Scott, the shop's office administrator, is a firm believer the internet is not the answer to high-street decline, and explained: "It's actually had a detrimental effect on the business.

"People come in and say that they have found it cheaper online."

Despite potential savings, she said internet shoppers who bought materials struggled later on when they needed their product to be fitted.

"We have a lovely display and it's a personal service that you get here," she added.

The personal service is one Peter Alford, owner of P&A Jewellers in Selsdon, believes is essential.

"I have no interest in it (the internet) at all," he said. "I have been here for 22 years and built up a local customer base, I prefer to have a local feel to it."

And Peter Skinner, owner of the nearby Selsdon Pet Centre added: "We're a local pet shop and people who use us are local and we hope that they know where we are."

But not all businesses were reluctant to embrace the world wide web – even if only trying to appeal to a local client base.

Selda and Alvin Burke have been running Eden Café in Selsdon for a year and plan to launch a website early next year in the hope of expanding the business into new areas.

The pair currently have a Facebook page but will use the website to advertise their outside catering service for birthdays, weddings and conferences.

Mrs Burke said: "Once we set up the website we will have a lot more people coming in, then we will need more space."

The London Assembly's economy committee is investigating measures to support the capital's struggling local high streets - including making better use of the internet - and is preparing to publish a report. Its chairman Andrew Dismore said last week: "Many high street shops complain that online shopping has taken away their business. Tackling empty shops is vital to London's economy and our report will focus on ways to help our high streets." Ideas on how shops could embrace the internet include providing free wifi to encourage 'multichannel retailing' and using empty high street shops as collection points for items ordered over the internet, which would encourage people back to the high street and boost business.

Is the internet key to the survival of Croydon businesses?

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