A high street revival will take stakeholder commitment says Angus Burrell

The high street as we once knew it no longer exists. Household names are dropping at an alarming rate, independents are struggling to make rent and local facilities are getting scrapped due to funding cuts. The demise of the high street is not just a sad totem to a more romantic era of retail, but a sign of the significant societal change to come.

In 2018, the UK suffered a net loss of 7,550 shops. Recently William Hill has announced that it is closing 700 betting stores and axing 4500 jobs on Britain’s high streets, demonstrating the tough conditions that face all sectors. Undeniably convenient options online have left the traditional high street struggling to carve out a distinct role in people's lives and as such neglect the beating heart of most local communities and city centres. 

If the high street is to be resurrected, it must be designed with the consumer of today in mind. This seems obvious, but it isn’t being done. The high street must offer more than products, it must take the customer on an experience that only the physical store can facilitate. Dyson is a recent example of how a brand has used the shop floor to create an experiential destination for their customers. Their hugely successful demo stores have offered consumers a try-before-you-buy experience, enabling them to immerse themselves in the brand experience before committing to the purchase. Through using the high street as an experiential destination, rather than a place to purchase, retailers can engage customers on a deeper level and earn a competitive edge against their counterparts.

In order to succeed in the highstreet’s turnaround, all stakeholders must commit to making a combined effort. It requires retailers, landlords and local councils to come together to offer consumers a destination in concert with their digital experiences. 

To steer this change, each stakeholder must be represented to highlight and address the opportunity at hand. For example, local councils and authorities must manage issues such as free parking and better transport links and retailers need to rethink the in-store shopping experience for digital consumers. The wants and needs of the consumer should also be front and centre. There is no quick solution to this transformation. Listening to each stakeholder and implementing changes is going to take time. But failing to address these issues and identify areas of opportunity swiftly will only serve to maintain the decline of the high street.

There are some examples of high streets beginning this transformation. For example, local councils, such as Doncaster, are stepping up and prioritising the future development of the high street an experience destination. Retailers must start to rethink the in-store experience through redesigning the purpose of the ‘shop floor’ and establishing experience zones for product demos and brand immersion. Furthermore, retailers should look at offering additional experiences and activities that compliment their brand as part of their offering. Sweaty Betty has introduced fitness studios into a number of their stores and is running exercise classes, using their fitness accessories. These experiential extras can lure customers from behind the screen and back into the shop.

Initiating a huge transformation feels daunting, but beginning with the small changes can make a huge difference, as long as it doesn’t just stop there. Valitor’s recent research on the After Payment Emotional Experience (APEX) found that more than half (54%) of consumers expect at least a basic level of care after making a purchase. Returns are one of the biggest factors of the after-care experience. So much so that almost two thirds (60%) of shoppers will not return to a retailer if there are issues returning a product. With 38% of consumers wanting to return items to a store, retailers must look at equipping their stores for a better returns experience. This step sounds small, but addressing such issues is what will make a retailer stand out from their competitors on the high street.

Resurrecting the high street lies in the hands of a number of stakeholders. The question is, are these stakeholders willing to work together and commit to putting the interests of the consumer at the heart of high street? Retailers must make change, not wait for it to happen. To start the change, focusing on smaller issues such as returns policies can be a step change into steering the modern consumer in-store. The future for bricks and mortar doesn’t need to be a bleak one, but we must commit to a single consumer led vision of the high street, regardless of channel, to turn things around.

Angus Burrell is General Manager UK of omni-channel solutions group Valitor


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