survival of the highstreet

by Amba Wilkes

For many years, it has been widely reported that the high street needs to pivot in order to remain. Today we stand at a clear crisis point. While online shopping thrived, 2020 was a challenging year for brick-and-mortar retail with the start of 2021 showing no signs of improving just yet. Long before the pandemic, many city centres and towns were already struggling. But now we face a tidal wave of store closures and with it more redundancies, more empty shops, less spending power and less reason to venture into town.

An eCommerce agency founded by an eCommerce business, our roots are firmly in retail. It is this real experience that underpins everything we do and as a team of ex-retailers, we are rightly celebrating the remarkable increase of eCommerce over the past year. However, there is still the question of our beloved high streets and the long-term impact the pandemic could have on the future.

For many years, it has been widely reported that the high street needs to pivot in order to remain. Today we stand at a clear crisis point. While online shopping thrived, 2020 was a challenging year for brick-and-mortar retail with the start of 2021 showing no signs of improving just yet. Throughout the last 12 months, many businesses have fallen into administration while a number of renowned high street names including Monsoon, Debenhams, Arcadia Group and John Lewis, announced permanent shop closures.

However, long before the pandemic, many city centres and towns were already struggling. But now we face a tidal wave of store closures and with it more redundancies, more empty shops, less spending power and less reason to venture into town.

A change in customer behaviour

The pandemic changed customer behaviour, pushing shopping habits to eCommerce. Data released in December predicted that global eCommerce (including automotive but excluding food and delivery sales) would equate to 17 percent of all retail sales worldwide by the end of 2020.

The pandemic didn’t stop people spending, it just pushed them to spend elsewhere. With eCommerce and Amazon cited as the main accelerants for the demise of the high street, there’s no denying online shopping has been a key player but it has not operated in isolation. There are a whole host of other factors that have caused significant changes.

It’s a sad fact that many physical shops here today, won’t be here tomorrow. For some, COVID will be the final nail in the coffin. But when people can freely socialise again, they will want to reconnect in our towns. What is the future of the bustling and cherished high streets we once knew?

Experiential shopping: Creating shareable experiences

It’s not new news that experiential shopping prevails in the retail world. But this sentiment has never been truer than it is now. Shopping styles are evolving, and retailers need to adapt their offering if they want to stay relevant.

People today seek experiences. They want unique and interesting places to browse, engage and shop – something that experiential stores can deliver. Offering more than just products, experiential stores create an immersive social experience that give brands a competitive edge by evoking an emotional and memorable response.

These physical stores are highly curated and encourage shoppers to share their experience with others. Many individuals are even known to visit experiential stores purely to gather photos to share across their social channels and hopefully purchase an item or two along the way.

Beauty brand, Glossier, are a leading example, using areas of their flagship store to craft ‘Instagrammable’ moments as soon as you step through the door.

With social proof becoming an increasingly important element of a marketing strategy, this is an effective method of drawing people to your store to engage with your brand. This approach also encourages the production of that all-important user generated content (UGC) which Glossier then uses to promote the brand across their own website and social channels.

Swedish furniture giant, Ikea, also creates experiential shopping experiences allowing shoppers to step into lifelike room settings complete with all the home inspiration you could need as you browse. Taking it one step further, Ikea is also known to organise impressive and unique events such as their furnished climbing wall designed to create chatter around the brand.

In a world where eCommerce is king, experiential stores are a great way of driving customers to brick-and-mortar shops prompting the online and offline worlds to work together rather than against each other.

The rise of click and collect

Due to the rolling closures of retail stores, click and collect has unsurprisingly grown in popularity and been adopted by the masses during the pandemic. 2020 saw a 32 percent rise in the number of retailers offering these services with the click and collect market is forecasted to reach £9.6bn in 2022.

An attractive investment for retailers, click and collect can streamline the order process and reduce delivery costs while shoppers purchase from the comfort of their own home before collecting from a pre-selected location. Minimising the time spent in store, click and collect services have helped to create a safer more comfortable shopping experience for those who prefer not to spend time browsing in-store.

The pandemic has sparked the popularity of click and collect - will this service be part of the high street innovation? Absolutely! The concept of click and collect only stores are in talks which could offer customers the ability to try on and return unwanted products there and then, reducing online returns and speeding up the returns process. Click and collect stores or in-store collection points also produce the additional benefit of drawing more footfall into towns, encouraging visits to other shops while in the area.

When considering click and collect for your business, it’s important to select an eCommerce platform that can offer enhanced functionality allowing you to cater for your audience with ease, both online and in the real world. Using Shopify’s functionality, we implemented a click and collect service into Irish drinks retailer, O’Briens, online store allowing customers to clearly see which items are available for click and collect.

Another method for retailers to showcase their value and convenience to their customers, click and collect helps to build trust and ultimately drive sales while also leveraging the potential of omnichannel growth.

Omnichannel, more than just multi-channel

You may have already heard of omnichannel. It’s a buzzword that has been thrown around for a number of years now. However, at its core, an effective omnichannel strategy remains a solid concept for retail innovation and one that few retailers have yet achieved.

Not to be confused with multichannel which provides shoppers with access to a variety of communication options that aren’t necessarily connected, true omnichannel not only spans multiple channels, but also offers a seamless and connected experience across them all. It doesn’t matter whether you choose to shop online, on desktop, on mobile, through social channels or in-store, an omnichannel experience is brand led, unified and seamless. Set to increase in importance as eCommerce continues to grow, omnichannel is forcing retailers to adapt.

Here are some of the effective elements used to create an enjoyable and connected shopping experience:

  • Loyalty programme: Offering a loyalty programme that transfers between channels is one way to craft a seamless omnichannel experience. The Starbucks omnichannel loyalty scheme is widely regarded as one of the best there is. They may well offer a free drink when you sign up to their loyalty programme through their app, but the one thing that differentiates their offering is the ability to check and reload your loyalty card through your phone, website, in-store or on the app. Whichever one you use will automatically update across all channels in real time, allowing you to make a purchase in the way that suits you best at that time.
  • Personal shopping experiences: A joined up CRM gives you the ability to create personal shopping experiences through access to customer data including favourite products, sizes, and order history. Knowing your customers and leveraging this data across channels enables more memorable and personal connections to be made. For example, imagine a customer makes an online order and receives a 10% discount to use on their next purchase. Their next shopping experience happens to be in-store where they’re searching for a new blouse. With instant access to their favourited products, previous interests and sizing, shop assistants are in a better position to provide valuable recommendations and a personal experience. Ultimately, the shopper can find and purchase their desired product with ease, using their 10% discount gained online, in-store.
  • Combining online and offline: Combining technology with in-store shopping allows shop assistants to provide a more streamlined and enjoyable shopping experience to customers. Many stores including Burberry and Joules use iPads or similar tablets to guide customers along their shopping journey. Whether it’s for stock searches, sales processing or ordering online while in store, technology allows businesses to access up-to-date product information and carry out tasks for customers in just a few clicks without fixed point of sale.
  • Interactive digital shelf: As mobile commerce continues growing in popularity, it’s no surprise that it is beginning to weave itself into the physical shopping experience too. Mobile app can supplement the in-store shopping experience, allowing customers to scan products for more information, product ratings and reviews. An app could also be used to discounts or even to help locate a specific product in store. Engaging with customers via a mobile app can deepen your understanding of their wants and needs while creating a more seamless shopping experience, however they choose to shop.

It’s clear to see the future of the high street will be defined by the digital experiences that make our lives easier. Success lies in excellent service and adapting your offering according to what customers want and how they shop. Although digital technology is a key to high street innovation, a vital aspect of this change is how your employees are empowered to use it.

Regeneration of the high street

With a clear focus on creating high quality, personal and unique experiences, retailers will no longer see the number of physical stores as a measure of success like they once did. Due to this shift, it’s unlikely we will see all of those empty retail units transform into lively shops once again.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Now is the time for community engagement and asking local people what types of shops, services and amenities they want in their town today. This data could be used for local economic development planning to create new town centres based on what people want and need.

Not only could this be an effective way of bringing communities back into the heart of towns, but it would also generate new jobs and create a platform for more engaging shopping experiences based on the needs of local people. The domino effect could attract more people to live in and around these areas while charming tourists from further afield to boost visitor economy and bring a sense of community and vibrancy back to vacant towns.

Stifling rents and rates

Business rates and rents have been long overdue for reform. Traditional retail leases were designed for traditional retail and the days of 20-year long leases no longer work today. Equally, business rates need to be overhauled, providing a true level playing field compared to online. Retailers must be incentivised to take risks and open stores to sustain our high streets.

Real estate experts, Cushman & Wakefield, have discussed this topic in depth, including the concept of partnerships between tenants and landlords leveraging a combined vision for both place making and driving footfall. Tenants may be willing to pay more rent for a proactive landlord who adds value by supporting local business growth.

From retail to residential

Countless empty stores aren’t an enticing proposition to encourage people back to the high street – budding entrepreneurs and shoppers alike. What if, instead, those vacant spaces were transformed to meet other needs such as housing requirements?

New government rules came into effect in September 2020 making it possible to convert commercial properties into homes without planning permission. By allowing commercial properties to be quickly repurposed, the revival of the high street is supported, encouraging more people to live in towns and more footfall for retailers.

A time to re-imagine and reinvent

Retail won’t be the same, and that’s ok. This is only the start of what the new normal can look like. Now is the time to find imaginative solutions and create a sustainable future for our high streets during the retail revolution.

As a team of ex-retailers, the future of the high street is a topic we are passionate about. We understand your retail challenges because we’ve been there ourselves and the crisis faced today is one that requires us to work together.

With our roots firmly in retail, we bring a commercial edge into the agency world, applying our experience as merchants to every brand we work with. Our team of in-house specialists are geared up to help you navigate the challenges of modern retail, get in touch to share your thoughts on high street innovation.

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