We’ve all heard the doom and gloom – the unrelenting crisis of the high street, store closures, job losses and companies crippled by rising rates, debt laden from their rampant over expansion of bricks and mortar ahead of the inevitable shift to online. High profile failures include Maplin, House of Fraser and Toys R Us, with chains such as Carphone Warehouse, New Look, Marks & Spencer and Carpetright announcing store closure plans. At the core of all this though, many brands have simply failed to address the single most important factor – what people want.
The mass duplication of homogenous retail spaces the country over is well and truly outdated. A catalogue of stores have followed the well-trodden path into administration and beyond, many unsalvageable, based on a model people just don’t want anymore. Large impersonal stores, leaving customers wanting more from a shopping experience, often become nothing more than a showroom for consumers to try before they buy (online, cheaper and from someone else). Retailers are often providing little more than what people can get from an online experience, and that’s the problem.
So what does this mean?
Are we facing a post-apocalyptic landscape of town centres bereft of all human presence? Does this shift present a much needed opportunity for reinvention? Despite the serious consequences of closures and job losses, as with any change, there will be some things to smile about.
Major retail player Bill Grimsey’s recent report into how to fix the high street claims “It’s all about localism…Forget retail for town centres, they need to become community hubs based on health, education, entertainment, leisure and arts and crafts.” I tend to agree in part. People are social animals. We need somewhere to enjoy ourselves, be around other people, find activity and community, and have a sense of place. But no shopping at all? I’m not so convinced.
It does appear that for now – we have enough things. Hungover from the material binge of the eighties and nineties, we’ve woken up the morning after – jaded, in a flat full of stuff, yearning for something more. Ikea’s head of sustainability Steve Howard claims “if we look on a global basis, in the west we have probably hit peak stuff.” Instead of just buying things, now we want to do things. Increasingly, people want to buy experiences rather than products – to go out for dinner while seeing live music or attend a yoga class in store when out shopping for sportswear.
Fuelled by the desire to document and share our lives through social media, and an attitudinal shift following the financial crash of 2008, we’re seizing the day out of FOMO (fear of missing out) like never before. Places like Hatch in Manchester and Shoreditch Box Park in London, while still being firmly rooted in retail, have capitalised on this trend. They offer a packed calendar of events, the personal feel and variety of independent stores and the general buzz of a place people want to go to.
Initiatives like Circle Square in Manchester put emphasis on open green space, while places like Bradford’s UNESCO World Heritage Site Salts Mill capitalise on their history and picturesque surroundings. They provide a healthy spread of retail, cultural and culinary offerings impossible to replicate online – a far cry from the identikit shopping centres we’re used to.
And how will tech play its part?
Technology, despite being the main culprit for the shift, may also be its saviour. The move to online can be harnessed to work for retailers not against them – the ‘clicks and mortar’ revolution is what can give shops with physical premises the edge over the purely digital. There’s opportunity now more than ever to utilise new technologies, and there are certainly enough of them. From robots that call extra staff to a checkout after spotting a dissatisfied face, and mobile payments that improve speed and security, to tech that helps retailers unpick the customer journey – these are just some of the ways the retail experience is being ramped up.
AR apps do this well too. Digital dressing rooms and Amazon-patented smart mirrors use AR to virtually style a user’s look. Make up giant L’Oreal brought out an app for customers to try on lipstick, eliminating the mess and waste of testing physical products and resulting in 13% of its users in 2017 clicking the ‘buy’ button.
Blockchain, the tech underlying cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, can be used to help retailers build greater trust and brand loyalty by showing consumers not only where an item was made, who made it, their pay and conditions, where the fabric was grown and which chemicals were used. The world’s largest diamond producer, De Beers, aims to launch the first industry-wide blockchain this year to verify the authenticity of diamonds and ensure they are not from conflict zones where gems are used to finance violence.
Automated convenience stores are appearing in China requiring no checkout, cash or salespeople. Customers scan QR codes to enter the store and select products and pay using their mobile wallets. Other retailers such as Zara, Amazon and Walmart have eliminated queues with self-checkout stations and contactless stores. Many retailers could wipe out checkouts altogether but whether they choose to or not is a branding decision – it depends on the experience they want to curate. Two main models will emerge: convenience and experience shops, with some brands opting to provide both.
So what now for the brands?
Rather than a pre-destined demise, this is a real opportunity for brands to shine, allowing them to make lives easier for consumers, encourage brand loyalty and empower customers to hold them to a higher ethical standard. In this adapt or die climate, the innovative brands who value change and embrace big ideas (and have the money in their pockets to do so) will have the upper hand. Instead of retailers, they need to think of themselves as experience-makers. Now’s the time for them to tell their stories more than ever.
It’s no longer about online or offline getting top spot on the podium. The two will need to work hand in hand. With the advancements in tech, coupled with the ability of shops to create meaningful experiences through their unique environments, the fusion model of ‘clicks and mortar’ could emerge as the big dog of retail.
And what about us – the ordinary folk, the consumer?
The broadening of experiences and high street offerings, along with a space for independents, the celebration of places, and a new focus on community, will surely make for richer and more meaningful places for us to spend time, interact with others and, of course, part with our hard-earned wages. The altered landscape can help facilitate what is important to us which these days is what we do, not just what we own.
The consumer can demand more than just the product they’re buying – they can have meaning and experience. And why shouldn’t they?