High street decline and the urgency of digital transformation

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Our high streets are transforming into ghost towns, our shopping malls into abandoned buildings. Small businesses and big names alike are finding that brick-and-mortar commerce just isn’t what it used to be. Our town centres are losing as much as fourteen shops a day as struggles to make rent and pay wages only worsen. It seems the heyday of the high street has come to an end.

The blame for high street decline is commonly placed on the success and growth of online shopping and ecommerce giants like Amazon. Whether this is the case or not, one thing is certain: there’s been a digital shift in the way we live, work, and indeed, shop.

Sinking like bricks (and mortar)

In the first half of 2018, almost 2,700 high street stores were closed, yet only 1,569 opened in their place. And it’s not just smaller businesses struggling. Big names like Debenhams, Marks & Spencer and New Look are all downsizing in a bid to survive high street regression. Other giants like Toys R Us, Maplin and House of Fraser have collapsed into administration.

There are several factors behind the decline of the high street, from debt to rising overheads. But the most notable reason is the rise in ecommerce. Today, we’re more likely to spend our money over the internet than over the counter. In fact, while our high streets are dying, ecommerce is growing by 14-15 per cent annually.

It’s not simply the rise of online competition causing high street failure. Rather, we’re seeing a deeper behavioural change in the wake of modern technology.  The decline, then, may be a symptom of changing perceptions in what makes for a good customer experience in our increasingly busy, connected lives.

Think of the customer experience

Rather than trudge around the town centre in the rain, online shopping allows you to stay warm and dry at home. (You can even wear your pyjamas.) Instead of spending hours searching for specific items, you can find what you want in a few clicks. You can avoid waiting in long queues, and check out yourself as soon as you're ready to pay.

Put this way, it seems simple. Compared to online shopping, in-store experiences seem time-consuming and unsatisfying. The saving grace of the high street – friendly, personal customer service – is also no longer a real differentiator.

Today, most major e-retailers offer digital customer service options. Plus, online support can be personalised to every customer in a way that physical stores can’t always achieve. For example, order history is known, names are used, personal recommendations offered. Ecommerce has successfully humanised its offering to the point where a real human behind a counter may not necessarily be a competitive edge anymore.

In other words, it’s this convenience, efficiency and personal touch that make for a good customer experience. It’s the seamlessness and speed that’s attracting high street customers away from the bricks-and-mortar. And it’s the friendly, personal touches in online service that keep satisfaction high.

For these reasons, digital transformation has become imperative to the continued success of retail businesses. As the world becomes increasingly digital, high street businesses need to do the same.

Digital transformation: build an online presence

Digital transformation is the integration of your business with digital technology. That is, embracing technology within your business and using it to change the way you interact with your customers.

This means that you need an online presence — it’s a necessity, not a luxury. In our fast-paced world, customers might not have time to visit in store, but they can probably spare you a few clicks.

So, you need to replicate your shop floor online with a brand website, and allow customers to do business with you online and off. By building an online presence, you not only meet your customers where they are, but can also reach customers that don’t have easy access to a physical branch of your business — even opening up the way for global expansion.

Digitalise your customer service

You also need to find ways to replicate the human touch of your in-store customer service online. And preferably, with all the efficiency and seamlessness that online retail can achieve.

In a high street store, you likely have a shop floor attendant ready to answer customer questions or offer help when they look lost or confused. Online, you can replicate this with live chat software. Customers can reach out to you and get support in real time, and you can use proactive chat invitations to invite customers that linger on pages or appear to be struggling.

Offering online self-service options is also a great way to boost the ease of service of a customer in a hurry. For FAQs and simple queries or fixes, having a self-service option is easy for customers, and means less tedious, repetitive questions for your team.

The goal of digitalisation is to use technology to make your business as accessible, efficient and personable as possible. Digitalising your service doesn’t mean replacing your human support team with robots. It does mean making service open, friendly and reachable online and in store.

Supporting the high street

Digital transformation isn’t about replacing your physical shop with an online presence. It’s about augmenting your in-store service with your online offering. There’s no reason that online and offline commerce cannot coexist.

Technology like that exhibited by Amazon Go and produced by AiFi are taking the friction out of the in-store experience. By removing the checkout, the technology removes frustrating queues. This means a smoother, more efficient experience for customers.

But you don't need to remove your checkout to improve the in-store experience. Starbucks customers can order their drink using an app and skip the queues that way to collect it. Domino’s uses a chatbot to make ordering quick and effortless for repeat customers. It’s these uses of technology that are keeping high street stores both busy and open.

So, merge your digital transformation with your high street presence. Help customers skip in-store queues by allowing them to pre-order online and pick up from your store. If a customer can’t find what they’re looking for on the high street, help them buy it from you online. If a customer buys an item online, let them access customer service in-store, and vice versa.

Embracing the urgency

Our businesses need to reflect these drives, and we can start by meeting customers online. It’s time to embrace the evolution of commerce. It’s time we recognise the urgency of digital transformation.

The decline of the high-street is a symptom of the modern desire for efficiency and convenience. It’s born of the expectation of effortless browsing, purchasing and service. Customers crave a seamless and smooth customer experience. One that can only be achieved through digital transformation.

Howard Williams, customer experience, Parker Software
Image Credit: Konica Minolta Business Solutions UK