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Online sales are king, but shoppers still crave human touch

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Olesia Bilkei)

Digitalisation has significantly disrupted many industries and put them at the crossroads of either embracing new technologies or risking falling behind the competition. The retail sector has traditionally been at the forefront of digitalisation, with Michael Aldrich pioneering internet online shopping as early as 1979

Since then ecommerce has experienced a stellar growth, with the internet fast becoming the destination of choice for consumers, as highlighted by the latest online sales figures which saw online-only companies like Boohoo achieve a sales growth of nearly 40% in the four months to the end of December. 

In stark contrast, high-street footfall dropped 7% on Boxing Day and 6% in the two days before Christmas, clearly indicating that in-store growth is struggling to keep up with the likes of Amazon, EBay and more. 

Yet despite the fact that a digital and mobile presence is more important than ever before for retailers, the outlook is far from doom and gloom for bricks and mortar retailers. Recent research found that 63% of British shoppers still value high street stores, as touch and feel provides an important experience for consumers. Thus, the increase in the popularity of online shopping shouldn’t be viewed as a threat to the high street but rather as an opportunity for retailers to reinvent themselves and adapt to changing customer expectations. 

Competing with the click of a button 

Modern technologies and the rise of ecommerce giants have forever changed the way we shop. These days, customers are spoilt for choice by the plethora of retail channels at their fingertips, from shopping on the high-street to online, mobile and click and collect services. This has unsurprisingly altered consumer behaviour, with today’s ‘connected consumer’ expecting a seamless, multichannel digital experience.    

However, although one in four consumers always select a digital shopping option according to recent research, there’s still a need for face-to-face services, with over a fifth of consumers (21%) naming it as their first choice of communication. And whilst it can’t be denied that online shopping is steadily on the rise, physical shopping experiences still hold value for many. Therefore it is essential for retailers to provide integrated channels that flow from the shop floor to the back end systems through to the online store.  Luckily, there are a number of things that high-street shops can do to enhance their in-store customer experience in our omni-channel world whilst driving up sales in the process.   

Braving newfound partnerships 

In 2016, we observed a number of retailers stepping out of their comfort zone; the Post Office teamed up with WH Smith as did Ocado with Morrison’s, Sainsbury’s acquired Argos and Tesco and Arcadia strengthens their previous bond. With consolidation an effective way to maximise the in-store footprint, the movement of physical retailers teaming up with online only players to widen their reach is an effective way to keep existing and win new customers.    

By teaming up with retailers that already do in-store or online well, they are able to deliver a better service offering and focus on delivering that customer experience. In addition, this method is much less complex than starting digitalisation from scratch. 

In addition to online-only retailers partnering with bricks and mortar retailers, collaboration between non-competitors to widen scope and increase footfall cross-over is also on the rise.  Whether it’s sharing space or teaming up and selling new ranges as in the case of Tesco and Arcadia, these kind of partnerships allow to compliment the others principal offering; while Tesco do sell clothes, it isn’t its primary income, and so in sharing store space with Arcadia, they are likely to attract more customers who are coming into the store for the ranges, and Arcadia will benefit from customers doing their grocery shopping.   

Know your customers as you know yourself 

The more high-street retailers can predict their customers’ behaviour, the smoother the retail experience will be. Data analytics are a great way for retailers to analyse trends, and forecast how many people will be in store and when. If this principle is then compared to previous shopping data, including customer footfall; weather; and other factors that influence when customers will be in store, retailers will then be able to plan accordingly. Analytics have the potential to map out where best to allocate products, catering to each store’s individual demographic. In addition, they provide retailers with insight on how to best utilise their staff, i.e. when tills will need extra staff. 

At its very core, retail is an industry that is customer-facing and knowing who their customers are and how to attract them is instrumental. Digital technology has allowed retailers to create the right balance in-store enabling consumers to benefit from both digital and in-store services. Take beacon technology for instance, which integrates into Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on a person’s mobile phone or tablet to understand their shopping behaviour in-store. This technology can then be used to collect data, allowing retailers to use location based analytics to understand how their customers are moving throughout their stores, what they are looking at and dwell areas. Retailers can also understand the effect of promotional items, placement of products, people flow and queue management to help make decisions about the customer journey in-store. 

With the knowledge that customers still have an appetite for face-to-face services, retailers should leverage the data at their disposal to deliver a personalised experience in-store that rivals an online shopping experience in convenience. It’s the only way they will stay relevant and ensure that sales figures this year will go up rather than down. 

Image Credit: Olesia Bilkei / Shutterstock

Heather Barson is Director Business Development and Sales at Fujitsu UK & Ireland.