From storms to sunshine – how the great British high street can flourish once again

The bad news from the high street seems ceaseless. Big names are struggling. It’s not hard to see why. There’s almost a perfect storm of forces ranged against retailers, and the headwinds are blowing hard: from changing consumer behaviour, the impact of the internet to the challenges of new digital technology.  So do these forces mean the end of the high street as we know it? Is all the gloom and doom justified?

For retailers who are unable to change and evolve, the outlook is pretty bleak. But that’s far from the whole story. Many retailers are recognising that they need to change and are taking bold steps to do so which if done effectively, could change the forecast for the future of the UK high street.

From shifting stock to inspiring lifestyles

One of the most important changes is the recognition that the store is no longer simply a place from which to sell stock to consumers at a certain price point. Instead, stores must become a source of inspiration. They’re the places where consumers can engage with a brand, and get personalised advice and recommendations about what they buy and how it meets their unique needs. That’s what consumers want. Accenture research reveals that far from being a spent force, the store is highly valued by consumers–and younger consumers in particular. More than 60% of ‘Gen Z-ers’ say that they prefer to shop in store, and most also say that they’ll visit a store before buying online.  Retailers who understand these preferences are changing the in-store experience they offer and changing how their people interact with consumers. Some have even dispensed with holding stock altogether to focus solely on providing a compelling experience and an exciting showcase environment.

Renewed purpose

Having the confidence to change requires a clear understanding of purpose. All successful retailers have that in common. They know who they are and why they do what they do. Everything flows from that clear sense of purpose.

Omnichannel has been essential for retailers to maintain competitiveness. But this has become table stakes for tomorrow where the true channel is neither the store nor online but the consumer.  Thinking about the customer as the channel informs how all the various touchpoints available come into play: online, stores, marketing, loyalty schemes and so on are all geared to drive affection for the brand.  So rather than focusing on the individual channels, the emphasis shifts to considering the whole experience in an adaptive way – taking into account all the interactions before, during and after a store visit.

Technology with purpose

That same adaptive approach applies to technology. Millennials and Gen Z-ers were born into a connected, digital world. For them, technology is not a differentiator but an expectation. There are a number of ‘cool’ technologies – from smart mirrors to in-store robots – coming into retail environments. They may or may not be the right choice for different retailers. But what is unquestionable is the need to use technology to support experiences that are truly expressive of a brand’s purpose.  That could mean, for example, using technology to empower staff with product knowledge. After all, it’s really not acceptable for consumers visiting the store to have more information and product knowledge than the employees seeking to guide and advise them.

Stores need to be a part of this by moving into the digital and ultimately virtual world – offering rich, dynamic interactions that turn the store into something to be remembered, worthy of creating lasting relationships with consumers.

Last mile challenges

Using physical stores to create a unique experience is one advantage that high street retailers should take advantage of. The other is the role of the store network in solving the challenges of getting physical goods into the hands of consumers in a way that’s convenient and simple. Click & collect and reserve and collect are growing in popularity with consumers. On the face of it, these seem to offer a way to harness the store network to solve the last mile challenge.  But a word of caution is needed. Click & collect can be just as – if not more – costly to execute than delivery to the customer’s front door. Reserve and collect is even more complicated. What’s more, emphasising convenience and speed may detract from the intention to make a store somewhere to linger and explore at leisure. So while delivery innovations can be part of the overall store experience, how they are designed and executed – along with the behind the scenes supply chain changes required – all have to be carefully considered if they are to achieve a positive outcome for the consumer and the retailer.

From storms to sunny success

There’s no question that the outlook for the high street is challenging. Standing still is not an option. But retailers who evolve and build their experiences around a clear understanding of their customers and what they want will flourish. Identifying the most profitable customers, designing experiences that they value and executing on that sense of purpose will not only provide a robust shelter from the storm, but the foundations for future success.

To listen to Rob Barnes, MD of retail technology at Accenture, chat to Essential Retail about this very topic, check out the Retail Ramble podcast here.