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EDITORIAL Complicated tales from the High Street

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As the High Street crumbles around us, there are many suppliers out there keen to tell us just why it is all going wrong and how technology can help.

And of course there is a technology issue here, but it’s more complicated than that: the real issue is a mixture of expectations, old brands, new shoppers and a degree of rising panic.

Shoppers of course drive what does and doesn’t happen in the High Street and many of them have very different expectations of what shopping means than they used to have. But more complicatedly, among shoppers themselves, different demographics want different things. My ageing parents want to do things the old way: go to store, buy what’s there, try it on at home and take it back (in my mother’s case). My partner wants to go to shops as a bit of fun, but really she tends to buy things online, try them on at home, take them back to the store. Our kids hang out at the mall – never to shop mind – and anything they do buy they get off Amazon. I, personally, won’t go near a shop and buy everything online.

The problem is clear – we all want different things from the shops. Even the idea that retail needs to be an ‘experience’ is flawed. The experience that my mum wants is not the same as that of my partner and neither are the same as our daughter. Even her idea of a retail experience is different from her younger sister and brother.

So faced with this what do retailers do?

So far nothing. With perhaps the exception of House of Fraser, which at least tried to be modern, most chains do nothing. Yeah they have a website, they do click and collect, some sell on Amazon too… but their hearts just aren’t in it.

A trip round the High Street at the weekend left me with the feeling that stores and their owners are kind of thinking that it’ll all be alright in the end and everything will go back to normal. The changes are only a fad.

Wrong. It has changed for good and ideas need to be bucked up pronto. And it all comes down to not listening to what the vendors and suppliers say you need – nor indeed what I think it needs – but what your particular customers want.

Take click and collect. Everyone offers click and collect and it’s popular (inexplicably: it combines the worst elements of both online and in-store, but there’s no accounting for taste). But it isn’t what people want – especially millennials. In fact a recent study by retail analyst I-AMfound that that shoppers want some twists to how standard shops work. While 73% of people prefer home delivery over click and collect, 56% would like their click and collect point to offer them a space to try on clothes and facilitate their returns and refunds.

This is the sort of insight that retailers should be acting on. Simply copying what everyone else is doing and hoping for the best won’t work – there has to be innovation in retail. Adding changing rooms to the click and collect department is simple, but genius… yet no one does it.

With House of Fraser joining a long list of department stores that are going under, those that are left need to radically overhaul what they do. Something as simple as allowing click and collect with trying on and returns is simple, quick and relatively cheap to implement and at a stroke makes the store part of the online shopping experience. It also increases footfall, which will lead to more sales.

In fact there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that many people of all ages like going to the shops: the problem is that they want different things from it when they get there. Servicing this widely varied need is really hard.

But it isn’t impossible. It used to work and it can again. A mixture of entertainment, independent and unusual shops and making what is on offer better – more mobile in stores, better stock, better ways to get hold of things that aren’t in stock, places to learn stuff about products, better trained and more helpful staff and a good cup of coffee and a bun should do it.

H&M are on to a winner: take in old clothes (from any retailer) and get a £5 voucher, the clothes get recycled and I am in a shop, where in variably if the kids are with me as it’s usually the weekend, I end up spending money.

But I will leave you with a small example that sums up the state of retail for me. I took my car to get new tyres following the discovery of a slow puncture. I drove in, waited to be seen, explained and was told “We are really busy mate, I’d go elsewhere if I were you”. Sale lost. For ever.

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