Is online the future, and are high streets flourishing? Just as they have for centuries, bricks and mortar retailers are reinventing themselves – competing and complementing the online option, and even stealing a march on it.
The surge in digital commerce, combined with the pandemic’s impact, has forced the high street to adapt more than ever. Successful retailers are doing so by building on physical shops’ unique in-person strengths while utilising the opportunities offered by innovative technology.
The result is a hybrid high street that supplies the best of both worlds: the choice and convenience of the digital world with the excitement, humanity and immediacy of a store.
Providing a personal experience
Online, artificial intelligence (AI) can turn a customer’s data on past purchases into an intuitive shopping experience, deal with their complex queries, swiftly take payment and arrange delivery from a range of options.
Staff on the shop floor, meanwhile, can make the shopper feel valued as an individual in other, ‘softer’ ways. Take Metro Bank, which provides the convenience of personal banking seven days a week, welcomes dog-owners with a water bowl for their pet and can open a new bank account on the spot, with a personalised ATM card. Metro Bank gained 200,000 extra customers in the first six months of 2021 alone.
Making strong connections
It’s by using connected technology that retailers can really make an impact. Hand-held devices mean an in-store customer’s stock queries can be answered without them having to wait around while the employee checks the stockroom. Staff know instantly if an item is available, and if not when the next delivery will be or if nearby branches have it.
The high street is also increasingly complementing online retail through omnichannel shopping. IT and customer services join up seamlessly, meaning an individual can decide whether to buy in-store or online, and then if they would rather pick up the goods in person or have them delivered to their home. If they later wish to return any items, this can also be done through the channel of their choosing.
Omnichannel high street fashion brand House of CB has actually designed their store experience to be shared effortlessly across social channels. And cosmetics retailer Lush focuses heavily on the in-store theatre retail excels at (in its case, emphasising smells as well as visuals), while at the same time capturing customers’ preferences, which Lush later feeds into its product development.
Virtual learning from the physical
We’re not only seeing bricks and mortar shops reinventing themselves in the face of online alternatives – many web giants are embracing offline opportunities.
Amazon has ambitious plans in the UK for its ‘Fresh’ shops. These implement smart city technology, using beacons, cameras and sensors to offer a ‘Just Walk Out’ service. This is a fast, convenient and novel experience, where the customer’s choices are recognised by their Amazon account and logged in virtual baskets. When they are finished shopping, the customer leaves the store without having to queue or pay at a till. Instead, their account is automatically charged and they receive an email receipt.
Elsewhere, Boohoo Group recently opened a Debenhams.com beauty store at Manchester Arndale centre. Boohoo acquired the fallen high street giant in 2021, and despite doing so after Debenhams had been forced to close down all its stores nationwide, it has decided that opening this flagship beauty store will create a “fresh, modern, and unique” destination that shoppers will wish to visit in person.
Clearly, the future for the hybrid high street is combining emerging technologies with the particular strengths of the physical and virtual channels, creating the complementary and seamless buying experience that today’s consumer demands.