High street retail brands are currently going through a huge period of change. But by focusing on the customer experience and embracing technology, their future will be assured.
Earlier this year, over 8,000 executives, managers, researchers and experts from the global retail industry gathered in a very large conference hall in an even larger hotel in Las Vegas for the 2019 Shoptalk event. At the event they listened, discussed and learnt about the current state of retail and how it’s going to develop over the next ten years, both online and off.
Over the four days of Shoptalk, deals were made and ideas formed that will shape the way we all buy things, whether that’s an emergency pint of milk at midnight or a luxury car. But whatever the item and whatever the country, the experts all agreed on one thing: the physical store will remain a key part of many brands’ success.
High street challenge
There’s little doubt that the high street is going through a tough time. Brands that have been a staple part of the shopping experience for decades have gone into administration, their doors shut and thousands of staff laid off. According to KPMG, in the six months to September 2019, 44 retail businesses went bust in the UK, while high street giants such as Marks & Spencer, Tesco and Boots have announced store closures and job losses.
To anyone with an Amazon account, the reason is obvious: the staggering rise of online shopping. But there are also additional pressures on bricks and mortar stores, including a series of increases in business rates, as well as high street rental costs – something digital-only brands don’t need to worry about.
The physical advantage
But while online shopping offers lower prices and convenience, what it doesn’t offer is the physical experience, the sheer pleasure of walking around a store, handling the products, trying clothes on. High street shopping also has a vital social aspect – for many people it’s a great way to spend a few hours with friends or family, whether they buy anything or not.
“All retailers, no matter what sector they work in, face day-to-day challenges and burdens on their business,” says Alan Hawkins, CEO of the British Independent Retailers Association (BIRA). “The consumer is king and if they want to buy online, that’s their call. But from our observations, consumers still want the experience and level of service found when shopping in a bricks and mortar store.”
Experience over convenience
“Brands will use the offline space to create more opportunities for people to connect with the products.”
Most retail brands are keenly aware of the physical advantage their stores have over their online rivals, and are building on this to offer their customers unique experiences they could only get in person. Apple’s combination of the ‘Genius Bar’ and a showroom of its latest products is a fantastic example of a brand getting closer to its customers on the high street.
Meanwhile, mattress company Casper even offers shoppers in its New York store the chance to book a 45-minute nap to try before they buy, while retailers such as Nordstrom are trialing ‘stockless’ stores, where customers can get fashion advice from a team of stylists but can only buy clothes online rather than take them home there and then.
“Future retail is moving from transactional to relational,” says Emilie Colker, Executive Director at global design company IDEO. “Brands will use the offline space to create more opportunities for people to connect with the products.”
A bright future
While the headlines may predict a pessimistic outlook for the bricks and mortar store, the future actually looks bright. Billions are being invested in revamping existing stores and shopping centres (London’s Brent Cross Shopping Centre is set to double in size in a £1.4bn development plan), and global analyst Euromonitor International predict that by 2022, 83% of goods will still be bought in-store globally.
Inevitably, there will be more adjustment, more traditional brands that will fall by the wayside as the high street develops, but as technology and new ideas add to the sensory richness of physical shopping, the experience will become more unique, more pleasurable and ultimately, more successful.