We are used to hearing doom and gloom about the state of the high street. There is no doubt that we are living through difficult times, with store openings down and closures on the rise. The number of new high street stores opening in 2017 fell to 4,083, from 4,534 in 2016, according to research compiled by the Local Data Company (LDC) for PwC, which studied the top 500 town centres across Great Britain.
5,855 outlets closed on the nation’s high streets in 2017, at a rate of 16 stores a day, a slight increase on the 15 stores a day closing in 2016. The findings equate to an overall net loss of 1,772 stores disappearing from Britain’s town centres in 2017.
With the move to convenient and cheap online shopping clearly one of the key factors behind this squeeze on traditional high street shops, it is more important than ever that ‘bricks and mortar’ stores evaluate how they interact with customers.
A Valued Destination
It tends to be forgotten amid all the discussion of the current troubles afflicting the nation’s town centres but high street shopping still has significant advantages over its online variant. No-one wants to see empty shops and run-down high streets. Local authorities are reluctant to lose retail units and see shops converted into homes. After all, occupied stores typically pay more in rates than homeowners do in council tax.
Moreover, consumers continue to appreciate the chance to physically go shopping; try out products; access expert help when needed and walk away with the items they have decided to purchase there and then. They enjoy the social interaction and the chance to talk to friends over a coffee, or a bite to eat. After all, we are still essentially a nation of shoppers and shopkeepers rather than Internet buyers – and there is every indication that this will continue to be the case.
That is not to say retailers should be happy with the status quo, though – far from it. The truth is that high street stores must up their game if they want to ensure success over the long-term. Online shopping offers customers convenience. They have access to a wealth of information, deals and personalised offers – and paying for a product is often quick and easy.
There is a lot they can do to change, however. We are already seeing many retail shops and centres introduce more of a lifestyle leisure focus to attract people as we can see by the proliferation of everything from coffee bars and restaurants to gyms and cinema across our town centres and retail parks. The pace of that change is likely to pick up over time.
Price and Convenience – a Combination that Works
Ultimately, to compete effectively, high street retailers will need to match or at least get close to their online competitors in their two areas of greatest strength – price and convenience. They need to make prices as good as, or at least close to equal, to those available on the Internet. And high street retailers can find that ‘sweet spot’. They have to pay rent of course but so too do online retailers with warehouses. They have to pay staff but so do online businesses who employ thousands in their distribution hubs.
The other area where they struggle more is in understanding their customers’ requirements while they are in-store, and in providing them with the convenient shopping experience that makes them want to fulfil those needs. Consumers today typically visit stores with their mobile phones, which provide them with reams of product information that the retailer is typically not privy to.
In contrast, when a potential customer visits a company online they can track every move of that person, including whether they have looked at certain products or added items to a basket that are subsequently abandoned. Both the retailer and the customer benefit from the enhanced convenience this delivers.
Bricks and mortar stores don’t have access to this information and so they need to invest in other ways of understanding the behaviour of customers and providing them with a convenient shopping experience. Stores need to get up to speed with all the latest in digital and mobile technology in order to deliver this.
Why Mobile Matters
Innovative mobile app-based technology coming on stream today gives customers the opportunity to obtain details of products in the store they are visiting, together with offers and promotions relevant to them, and even receive price comparisons on specific items. Stores in turn can see, and better understand, the behaviour of their customers, provide them with relevant information about stock, and target them with offers and discounts.
So, in this way, mobile technology is already helping stores match the online experience in terms of convenience. But, in a sense, this is just the beginning. Mobile solutions offer the opportunity for retailers to deliver an even more far reaching transformation of the traditional shopping experience, centred around the payment process.
Already, the most forward-looking are looking at radical ways to eliminate the need for traditional PoS stations. The latest available near field communication (NFC) technology allows customers to view relevant product details by tapping their phone on a sticker located next to the product and then pay for the goods by tapping the same phone against a check-out pod before leaving the store.
It is an approach that has the potential to eliminate many of the barriers from shopping, helping eliminate congestion, while reducing the need for equipment and floorspace. Shoppers benefit not just from the streamlined payment process but also because the approach opens up space in the store, giving them a sense of greater freedom.
That does not mean cutting out the interaction between shoppers and store employees, of course. In fact, the opposite is true. Removing the paydesk removes the barrier between the shopper and shop staff – and some of the bulk from the retail environment, helping to facilitate enhanced interaction and engagement. After all, in this mobile age, shop staff should be just that; mobile, roaming the shop floor, giving help where needed, interacting with the customer and taking the hassle out of payment.
Reports of the death of the high street have been much exaggerated. The lure of shopping in town remains too strong for many consumers. But to drive long-term success and sustainability, adjustments are needed. And by harnessing the latest in mobile app-based technology, retailers can make those adjustments and fight back strongly against the competition they face online.
Julian Fisher, CEO and Founder of Jisp
Image Credit: WNDJ / Pixabay