Like everyone in the U.S. I’ve noticed the steadily increasing volume of vacant retail space: half-empty strip malls and entire sections of busy boulevards with empty buildings, and even large retailer locations standing derelict. Probably many observers have made the same knee-jerk reaction, “Man, the weak economy is really taking a toll.”

Sometimes, the forest keeps you from seeing the trees.

This recent article in Forbes opened my eyes to another cause of these vacancies that should have been obvious to me: some location-based retail is dead or dying. The focus of that Forbes article is the current plight of electronics retailer, Best Buy, which appears to be following the death spiral of Circuit City, Hollywood Video and Borders. Online commerce is revolutionizing the retail industry, just as thoroughly as it has transformed our ways of interacting and communicating. The Forbes writer says, “Demand for traditional retail is going down, not up, and that is a permanent change.”

I even wrote specifically about this matter more than 18 months ago on my personal blog, observing that the empty video and electronic retail locations were providing plentiful, cheap venues for the seasonal Halloween costume shops that open about September 1st. Yet I missed the point, even though I had been a regular customer of Circuit City and had, several years before, written about the radical changes in the business of antique collecting wrought by the advent of Ebay. Several of those temporary Halloween stores used spaces vacated by the failed Hollywood Video; those stores weren’t victims of the economy, they were made obsolete by the move of downloadable media to the Internet.

Not all businesses will become virtual ones. You’ll still go to a location to get your hair cut and your car repaired and to have your clothes dry-cleaned. Or will you? Will some innovator come up with an on-demand model for bringing haircuts or car repair or dry-cleaning to YOU? There is a long-standing, steady drumbeat of efforts to move shopping for groceries and other commodities into an order-and-deliver model. While none have been adopted “at scale,” the ground is plowed and the seeds are being sown. Even such “local” services as printing your documents are being outsourced into managed print services offerings by Lanier, Xerox, FedEx Office and a fierce set of lesser-known competitors. The purveyors of buggy whips, manual typewriters and video tape are only exemplars, not exceptions.

Building Your Virtual Presence

The point is this: even your long-standing, loyal customers are conditioned by the growth in virtual commerce to consider abandoning you for goods and services from another supplier who can bring the power of online markets to bear on your line of business. That, in fact, is the good news. So long as the transformation hasn’t already gained traction in your industry, this is the time to build your virtual presence. For businesses large, small and global in scale, and for the practitioners of all the disciplines that serve them, it’s time to strategize.

Communications as a Key Enabler

Here at Confluent, we aren’t experts in online commerce. Our beat is communications. We can assert with absolute certainty that your strategy to prepare for the virtualization of your business can be immensely reinforced by engaging in an examination of how you are and how you might be able to communicate with your clients and prospects. Take it for granted that they expect to find you on the Web, on Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Youtube and, yes, everywhere, always. If they can’t, devise a programmatic plan to make it so.

Do they have access to as much information as they could possibly need about what you do, what you offer, how to reach you and how to buy your offerings? Can they contact you and can they recommend you to others? Can they engage with you without picking up the phone or driving to your location? Will someone call them back? Do they hear from you regularly about new products or services? Can they subscribe to your e-newsletter, coupons, updates and tips for getting more out of what they buy from you? In short, are you using the power of the virtual domain to develop and extend your relationship with them? Can they, ultimately, become active members of a community of your customers who identify strongly with you? A communications strategy that moves in that direction will deliver better long-term return than just an aggressive schedule of e-mail letters and coupon offers.

Ebay did it. In an unbelievably short span of time, it became THE marketplace for an incredible array of, first, collectible oddities from around the world, and, later, consumer goods. Amazon did it, and struck a fatal blow to booksellers, music retailers and countless other brick-and-mortar businesses. Their once-thriving business locations are now vacant or occupied by rent-by-the-month office suites.

Communicating to Build Connections With Your Customers

Communication — an integral part of marketing your business, engaging buyers and closing the sale — is there for the taking, and, for the most part, available as a relatively inexpensive, always-on, always-current resource. Ask yourself how best to establish a virtual link to your clients and prospects, and demonstrate to them that you’re prepared to interact with them on their terms. Can you do more than establish a connection? Can you build a community around their common interests? If so, you’ll have gained another step forward in retaining their confidence and their trade.

We’d love to hear comments from businesses large and small about their experiences in anticipating and responding to the inroads of online commerce.

Honey, when will the dry cleaner be bringing those shirts back?