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High Noon or New Dawn for the High Street?


The glorious summer of 2013 ushered hands to pockets, providing a much needed national morale and economic boost. In a sun-fuelled frenzy we re-stocked our wardrobes with new outfits and stuffed our fridges with food and drink for the barbeque. By Autumn, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that retail sales rose three per cent compared with 12 months ago, the fastest annual rise since January 2011.

However, while a collective sigh of relief has been breathed across the sector, retailers must acknowledge that the consumer world emerging from the darkness is greatly altered from the one that entered the downturn.

A brave new consumer world

This reality is demonstrated clearly on the UK High Street. The recession coincided with the rise of online shopping, facilitated by the arrival of smartphones and affordable, quick broadband internet. Coupled with the long term trend of consumer convenience, buyer behaviour was changed forever as the recession enveloped the Western world.

The UK High Street has felt the full force of this consumer behaviour revolution. To survive, stores must ensure they meet the expectations of post-recession shoppers, or risk being plunged back into financial uncertainty. We now have a little more spare change in our wallets, but it’s not clear that it will make a smooth transition into High Street tills. Retailers and brands must realise that consumers’ expectations have changed – we are now a nation of informed, tech-savvy shoppers and we expect to get more out of our shopping experience. Friendly employees and clean aisles are no longer sufficient to keep customers happy as Marks & Spencer and other flagship retail brands are discovering.

Omni-channel retail (a term applied to a consumer’s ability to buy from a single retailer in a variety of ways) is an essential concept all retailers hoping for a successful 2014 must grasp. Rather than viewing e-retail as the enemy or a separate business arm, traditional retailers (with a physical history) must ensure their in-store strategy complements their digital offerings, and vice versa. Shoppers, armed with multiple tech devices, expect a seamless brand experience across all mediums. While the fearful see danger, the optimistic will recognise omni-channel presents an opportunity to increase customer engagement and build long-term loyalty.

Wi-Fi or die

By integrating the benefits of the online experience into the in-store experience, High Street retailers too can capture some of the benefits of the current recovery. One place that the High Street can start the fight back is by installing free Wi-Fi in stores. In many countries, particularly in less affluent regions such as Africa and Eastern Europe, free accessible Wi-Fi is an ever present in shops, cafes and bars. The UK is comparatively backward, especially on the High Street. While brands associate Wi-Fi with the haunting spectre of e-retail, the new generation of shoppers do not distinguish between digital and physical. SMG’s research shows that nearly 50 per cent of shoppers under 18 are ‘pre-shopping’ (browsing) online before purchasing in-store, with successful pre-shoppers spending 15 per cent more in-store.

Retail’s continued uncertainty over the use of the internet has been highlighted by the rise of ‘showrooming’, where shoppers browse products in-store before using their mobiles to compare prices on rivals’ sites. Concerned retailers recoiled when data emerged suggesting a quarter of Christmas 2012 shoppers had ‘showroomed’, with 40 per cent of those going on to purchase elsewhere.

The key, however, is not to run away from the problem but confront it head on. Mobile shopping is here to stay. Yes, it opens the door to price comparison, but ultimately the rewards for building a seamless digital-physical experience far out way the negatives. The internet is now a key weapon in creating an interactive ‘experience’ that engages shoppers and makes them willing to spend and recommend.

John Lewis pioneered this positive approach by becoming the first UK department store to offer free Wi-Fi, taking the belief that when a shopper enters a store with Wi-Fi, the point of sale expands from the register to the customers’ smartphone. This enables the retailer to further engage with the shopper and promote its brand offering. Special mobile exclusive coupons can also be offered, making the shopper feel both engaged and rewarded for using both the store and digital services. John Lewis has continued setting the pace with its ‘mobile Christmas’ campaign ahead of this year’s festive season.

`In, out` - Shake it all about

With the world’s brands just a click of the mouse, or swish of the iPhone away, the 2013 UK shopper wants its stores to be a destination in their own right, and not just a quick ‘in, out’ trip. While Amazon provides quick remedies and 24/7 browsing, shopping malls have successfully exploited the consumer desire for a ‘day out’ experience, reaping the rewards. As the likes of Westfield have gone from strength to strength, the High Street is struggling to keep up let alone catch up. High-street brands must get radical about the use of concept stores, and offering customers experiential experiences they simply can’t get online.

Optimism vs. Reality

This is just the beginning of a crucial learning curve for retail. Economic recovery or not, High Street brands post-recession will not survive if they don’t tap into what 21st century consumers want. Retailers must get closer to the customer to fully understand their changing shopping habits so the shopping experience on offer can be tailored effectively. Unless brands align themselves to customer preferences it’ll be high noon, not an economic new dawn, for the High Street.

Published on Friday 01 November by Editorial Assistant

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