The customer experience is crucial for high street survival says Branwell Johnson

It may appear that high street retailers face nothing but a slow – or in some cases a swift –exit from the stage as agile ecommerce operators skip over the problems plaguing bricks and mortar outlets. Boohoo reports excellent financial results while Debenhams faces a drastic downsizing of its retail footprint.

However, it’s an easy narrative to say physical shopping is in decline and consumers only want to order from online marketplaces and pure play specialists

Yes, the rate of growth for shopping online is increasing compared to physical shopping (UK online-only retailers enjoyed a net 23% sales uplift in 2017 – source RPC). However, online sales still only account for 11.9% of the global retail market.

Consumers still go to the high street. A US survey of online versus in-store shopping preferences shows that 71% of consumers prefer to buy jewellery in-store, 69% to purchase electronics and 68% to buy Apparel and footwear.

Online operators are beginning to see a ceiling to their rapid growth. Consumers still need to see, feel and touch products before a purchase and make no distinction between offline and online, traversing both in pursuit of their objective. The importance of the physical store as a showcase for goods, if not the actual point of purchase, is also gaining traction.

Several pure play retailers have opened bricks and mortar outlets, in the UK these include Figleaves and Missguided, while in the US online only operators turned store owners include Bonobos and sneaker brand Greats.

Even Amazon has opened bricks and mortar outlets – first bookshops, then the Amazon Go stores where technology allows customers to pick goods off the shelf and walk out of the store without cashier or self-service interaction.

And that’s where the high street battleground now exists – it’s a contest to deliver a marvellous customer experience and traditional retailers need to figure out how to stay competitive and retain loyalty.

It’s a contest between established high street brands and online specialists to deliver on consumer expectations of a high level of attention, personalisation, service and enjoyment across every channel and touchpoint.

The struggles of department stores have certainly focused the minds of homeware, lifestyle and beauty retailers. The John Lewis Partnership suffered its first half-year pre-tax loss at its John Lewis department stores last year for more than a decade. Now part of its game plan is to invest in customer service and experiences. It has increased the number of its personal stylists and broadened their remit – apparently the Westfield mall store saw 20% of womenswear sales driven by six personal stylists in the first three months.

Sainsbury’s too sees the value of in-store personal advice and guidance. It is pushing into Beauty with the help of specialist assistants and more premium products. The category is still driven by physical shopping - 90% of all beauty and personal care retail sales in the UK came through store tills last year (source- Euromonitor).

The challenge is delivering ‘surprise and delight’ to the customer week in and week out in a high street store. Success will ultimately rely on a blend of technology and the personal human touch. Technology will become increasingly essential in keeping shelves stocked, helping shoppers navigate in-store, facilitating payments and ensuring check-out is as frictionless as possible.

Many high street names are partnering up with tech companies to develop their customer experience. Marks & Spencer has teamed up with True, a specialist retail and consumer investment firm, to access retail-specific innovations and technologies.

Hennes & Mauritz has invested in payments solutions provider Klarna in a deal with a multitude of consumer benefits, for instance being able to combine the retailers’ in-store, online and mobile payments – customers will then be able to pay using the retailer’s smartphone app both online and in-store. 

The high street has a possible future where it is not set a boarded-up wasteland. The ultimate winners will be brands that are brave, bold and comprehend how their customers’ expectations of the shopping experience have radically changed. There’s no room for ‘me too’ mimicking – differentiate or hear the bell toll for your brand.

Branwell Johnson is Director of Content at Propeller – a PR, Content and Business Development agency. He will be hosting the Marketing & Branding stage on May 2nd at Retail Expo.

What’s Hot on Essential Retail?