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What can the high street do that Amazon can’t?

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There was a time when shopping was a real hands-on, social activity. When shops were the only place to shop, they had to be a catch-all for every step of the buying process from initial research, to decision making, customer, service, delivery and more. In some ways, it’s incredible they handled the challenge as well as they did.

Then Amazon happened. Most traditional motivations for shopping have given way to more efficient alternatives online. Prices are better, comparison is easier and delivery is becoming more and more convenient. Amazon, and indeed it’s entire ilk, have put the high street in a completely different position.

So what’s left to do? How do you turn physical stores and space into something that’s not simple shackles around your margins? What can high street retail do to avoid devolving into just showrooms and click & collect pick-up locations?

For many, the answer is value-add services, expertise and education. Many customers still crave a face-to-face with a helpful, experienced member of staff – and many people who end up in retail are a wealth of knowledge, attracted to their role by the idea of spending all their time around a subject they love. You don’t have to run the genius bar to see the effect that sitting down with a well-informed and helpful representative of the company can have.

But such expertise is expensive to have on hand 24/7 with no idea when customers will come in, when they will expect to use it or how much of a difference it makes to bottom lines. So how do you take the virtue of this expertise, and offer it efficiently and effectively?

The answer is focus. More and more companies are distilling the experience they have in their field into new, defined, marketable in-store services that customers perceive and value differently. This not just a superior standard store experience but offering something customer will go out of their way for. It also means assertively spreading the word – creating a new reason to come back to the high street itself.

Pets at Home provides a good example of this with its pet nutrition consultations. These free sessions invite customers to schedule an appointment where they can provide important details beforehand, bring their pet along for examination and received a 100% tailored analysis of how to give the very best care to their furry family member. As a result, they become a happier, better educated, more loyal customer and their average spend increases. Everybody wins.

It’s not the only example: Hobbycraft recently announced its plans to get as many people crafting in the local communities around their stores as possible; Jessops has started to offer lessons on camera-skills for its enthusiastic audience; Waitrose tempts customers in with a cooking school. In each case, the companies have created new revenue streams and opportunities to educate and upsell while focusing on improving service. And customers vote with their feet.

Because these sessions are defined, marketed and booked in advance, it allows the retailers to plan around and resource them properly, rather than having to deal with uneven patterns of customer footfall. They can learn from the most successful sessions or cross-sell other experiences, services or products that may be of interest. They can run a more efficient business focussed around the last remaining inimitable characteristic of their high street shops.

It’s not to say it’s easy. But by concentrating on providing added value that simply can’t be delivered online, our high streets may stand a chance to become more enlightening to their customers rather than just wallet-lightening. And in doing so, they’ll be taking a path that online-only stores simply can’t follow.

Published on Thursday 13 March by Editorial Assistant

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