Is online the death of the high street – or is it the nudge that retailers need

Amazon are ruining the high street, the high street is dead, everything will be bought via a mobile device and we’re going to be left with deserted shopping centres and desolate high streets - really?! If you listen to certain commentary this does seem to be the case, however, if you walk down many high streets and visit shopping centres this isn't so. The statistics for money spent online as oppose to in shops is quite simple, nearly 20% of retail sales are online, so 80% are still through the store channel, although the online graph is pointing upwards.

Looking at the winners and losers on the high street there are some obvious differences, namely investment, service and added value/entertainment.

While Debenhams and House of Fraser struggle to remain relevant or capable of maintaining a consistent dialogue with their customers, Liberty and Selfridges have been powering forward. Admittedly we are talking about London centric stores but surely some of the lessons are replicable. Both stores have continued to invest in the store experience, create inspiring environments that encourage shopping, have fantastic ranges and sell online. A visit to the lingerie department in Selfridges is living case study of how to get it right, from display, to range to service, the sales staff in there really believe in their products and have exceptional knowledge and deliver first class service. And once you’re hooked, you can continue an online dialogue and visit the store.

One look at Superdrug and Boots clearly demonstrates a different demographic, Boots and its ageing population combined with a tired interior. They have done a great concept store in Covent Garden, making it less corporate and far more modern (apart from some of the staid graphics) but can this be replicated across their vast estate. Contrast this to Superdrug who deal with a much younger audience and make their stores far more vibrant through the use of POS, not a very expensive way to stay current. Both stores have an opportunity to leverage the local angle because often they have a pharmacy which deals with locals.

With a new brand identity, admired by the agency world and probably lost upon their customers, John Lewis is making inroads into talking to their customers more and continuing to be wonderfully steady. On a recent trip to my local Waitrose I was delighted to be given a product for free “have it on us” the label said, because the product I was after was out of stock and the replacement was a gift from the assistant, what a great idea. Contrast this to a visit to Sports Direct on the same day, with a queue out of the door with 2 tills in operation and an abandoned shop, has Mr Ashley not heard of mobile payment? Sports Direct’s refusal to invest in stores and staff will eventually come home to roost. Interestingly Ashley invests heavily in digital, in the end this will not be enough.

Service, is the sure-fire way of keeping customers and building a positive relationship, so why is service so mediocre. Is it poor training, indifference, lack of management or pure inertia. How many times do you go a multiple retailer and receive poor or non-existent service as oppose to independent retailers who will go the extra mile, surely service is a key differentiator between on line and the high street.

Shopping centres are starting to look at the experience rather than just creating the same tired formula. Shopping centres in the Far East and places like Dubai are cathedrals of indulgence and pleasure, the mind-set is different there where people expect so much from the leisure/shopping experience. But added value, experience and entertainment are all part of the offer, so in addition to food and film customers can now visit Putt Shack for golf or BatFast for cricket & baseball. If shopping centres want to compete with the online users they have to provide much more than shops in the dry and create an experience.

Retailers often talk about being “local” – Tesco Local, your local CO-OP but how do stores really embrace local and become part of the community. For years, the supermarkets have helped building local amenities in exchange for building a new store, which is great for the local sports club, but there after what can they do. Click and collect works well, what about click and delivery with the order being fulfilled by the store not a central depot, this is a boon to the store in terms of sales and creates more of a sense of belonging to the shopper. Just imagine getting products that aren’t approaching the end of their sell by date.

So, in conclusion. Digital is here to stay, it is a channel of communication & fulfilment and not the end in itself. For stores to thrive they need to invest, stay relevant, be innovative, offer fantastic service, act local and not just say it to create a memorable experience. I don’t think you’ll see tumble weed in the city centres in the foreseeable future but retailers do need to up their game and innovate. And just a thought, isn’t it time that we saw something different in terms of website design.

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