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EDITORIAL It’s not just technology that is killing the High Street

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Another week, another kicking for the High Street. This time it is serious. Physical retail as we know it is unravelling – but the tools are there to save it: it just needs a bit of a rethink.

The news that M&S is hastening the closure of 100 stores and bring forward its revamp plans only go to reinforce how desperate this is. But to anyone who ventures to a store like M&S the reasons are obvious: this is no longer how your target audience shops.

Think about it, M&S isn’t a hot fashion emporium besieged by screaming teens: it is a quality brand aimed squarely at professional working women (and some men), mums and dads and people who want quality pants.

The trouble is, these people – largely in their late 30s, 40s and even 50s aren’t the same people they once were. M&S is trying to cater to my mother (who is a sprightly 78) not people who used to go to raves, still like 808 State, go to sophisticated bars and drive 4x4s that they can barely see over the wheel of.

These people want convenience. They want value. They want cool. M&S just doesn’t cut it.

There is a growing weight of evidence that technology is the problem – and the solution – and I don’t disagree. However, the lack of innovation in-store is part of a wider disconnect: many high street retailers don’t know who they are catering for.

Of course, it isn’t that simple with a brand like M&S – it caters to a reasonably wide demographic. But it, like BHS, Debenhams, House of Fraser et al don’t try to demarcate what they do for their different segments, they try to please everyone and fail to please anyone.

In the age of personalisation and with marketers exploring ever more personal ways to communicate – with the aim of one day being able to talk one-to-one with each consumers at scale – the way many of these increasingly shaky High Street brands operate is anathema.

Even before you look at the technological reasons why shopping is changing, retailers really do need to take a long hard look at what they are trying to do for whom and how they can make what they do work for all – and that means doing different things for different segments.

Simply adding free wifi, opening a café, or trying to deliver some sort of experience isn’t going to cut it. You need to do all these things and more, but for different people.

And this is where it gets so tricky. The technology exists to understand who these people are, what they like and don’t like and even what may attract them back to the high street.

Actually delivering not only an omni-channel experience, but also delivering an omni-experience as well is much more costly and sophisticated.  

This is the thorny problem which retailers are wrestling with – and it seems caving in under. Perhaps it is an intractable problem, hence why no one is doing it, choosing instead to apply for CVAs, closing stores, or throwing in the towel altogether.

Clearly, people still shop. Forrester’s latest report, Digital-Influenced Retail Sales Forecast, 2017 to 2022, predicts that digital will play a role in European retail sales worth €1 trillionby 2021. It goes on to say that around 45% of offline retail sales, worth €768bn, will be influenced by digital channels by 2022, and suggests that digital influenced sales will grow by a compound annual growth rate of 7.5% between 2017 and 2022.

Further researchby Navigating Modern Retail, which polled 2,000 UK consumers to track ever-changing consumer shopping behaviour, concurs, finding that 60% of UK consumers saying they use their smartphone, tablet or a store’s device while shopping – a number that rises to 80% for generation X and Z.

Interestingly, this latter research points to shoppers becoming ever more digital, even researching groceries on mobile before buying them – at home and even at the shelf edge.

This only seeks to highlight just how the modern shopper has shifted and how there is no getting away from having to bring together the on and off-line worlds if shops are to succeed.

But without fully understanding who the tribes of shoppers are and offering suitable, personalised, omni-experiences to suit a range of shoppers, shops as we know them are going to die.

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