Technically, two out of every five people in the UK could shop from home using interactive digital TV. But they don't. In fact, according to the latest report from Gartner G2, the business research and advisory firm: "Hardly anyone does and retailers are becoming disillusioned."
They are not the only ones. Try ordering the weekly shop from your TV with only a remote control and disillusion could easily turn to despair.
Despite the obvious commercial potential of the medium ­ by 2007, half of all UK households are expected to have subscribed to digital cable or satellite and have access to interactive services ­ the punters continue to steer clear of the shopping malls on Sky, NTL and Telewest.
Interactive digital TV (idTV) retail pioneers Woolworths and Argos finally threw in the towel with their TV shopping sites last year, followed by Asda in April 2003. And, depressingly for the supermarkets still on idTV, all available research suggests shopping is actually one of the last things people want to do on the telly.
So should grocers still on idTV ­ Iceland, Sainsbury and Tesco ­ follow Asda's lead and cut their losses, or should they hang on in the hope that the medium will live up to its exaggerated promise? chief executive John Browett is frank about the pitfalls of running a grocery shopping service on idTV, which Tesco launched last May on digital terrestrial TV via ONDigital, the now defunct idTV service from ITV Digital. The site, Tesco Access, was originally developed for partially sighted customers and is still accessible via PC, PDA or TV for consumers with NetGem set-top boxes.
The problem with idTV, says Browett, is that "grocery shopping is an involved process".
"The customer experience at the moment is difficult and there is no doubt that the PC is still the most efficient device with which to browse the net," he says. Moreover, the theory that idTV would generate millions in incremental revenue for the retailers' home shopping businesses by mopping up the consumers without PCs has proved a misconception.
"Most people that use the interactive services on cable and satellite are hooked up to the net anyway."
In the long run, there will be lots of devices in the home enabling people to connect to the internet, says Browett ­ PC, TV, personal digital assistant, even your fridge.
"The important thing is having a platform that uses the same transaction system irrespective of how the order comes through."
Tesco's investment in idTV was "peanuts", claims Browett, who admits he was "rather surprised" when Sainsbury announced plans to hook up with NTL late last year.
"Let's just say the level of our investment has been commensurate with the level of our expectation."
Sainsbury won't divulge how many customers it has on its idTV shopping service, but insists it is performing "in line with expectations". However, director of home shopping Robin Lassiter admits persuading viewers that there are other things they can do with their TVs apart from passively sit and watch them is an uphill struggle. "The challenge is to change the customer mindset of the role of the TV from a pure entertainment medium to a full solutions provider," he says.
And the only way to do this, according to the analysts, is to better link your offer to the content, because that is why people sign up for cable and satellite in the first place ­ to get more channels, not to go shopping. If you are going to persuade them to part with more cash, you also have to make it as easy as possible for them to spend it. Tony Moretta, formerly director of interactivity at ITV Digital, says he will be surprised if Iceland and Sainsbury are still gracing idTV screens this time next year.
"It's not rocket science, but people have realised that the killer application of TV is, well, TV."
When you are watching TV, he says, you are usually in a fairly passive frame of mind. You might want to place a bet or do the lottery. Likewise, if it just takes a couple of clicks on the remote during an ad break for The Simpsons ­ sponsored by Domino's Pizza ­ you might consider ordering a pizza. But the last thing you probably feel like doing is ordering 70 items from a TV supermarket.
Asda, which pulled its home shopping service on Sky Active last month, says it has taken an "enormous amount of learning" from its idTV venture, although less charitable sources close to the company say it paid "silly money" for the privilege and got its fingers badly burnt. Sky is more expensive for retailers than cable, but it has more subscribers ­ six million compared to NTL and Telewest, with around a million apiece.
An additional problem for budding idTV retailers is that all three companies use different technology platforms, says Accenture partner Richard Wildman. "Ultimately, the TV and the PC will probably become one device. But unless the user interface improves, access increases and there is commonality technically, progress will be painfully slow."
Technical gripes aside, idTV presents obvious opportunities for fmcg companies to establish direct relationships with customers through interactive advertising ­ inviting viewers to click on a button after the ad and order a sample ­ something Rimmel trialled extensively last year.
However, the big brands are unlikely to go much further down this route until the platform operators make it worth their while commercially, says Unilever's etail business unit director Mark Fiander. "We've done a lot of work on idTV, but still have a lot of issues with the platforms and cost structures."
Dave Birch, a director at analyst Consult Hyperion, says improving the user experience and coming to more fruitful commercial arrangements with platform operators is critical. However, long-term he is "pretty bullish about idTV shopping". The growth of online shopping shows that people are happy with the concept of shopping remotely, he says.
Quibbling over which device ­ TV or PC ­ is best is missing the point. By 2006, he says, half of all European households will have idTV. The sheer size and reach of the channel makes it one that few retailers or manufacturers can afford to ignore.