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EDITORIAL It’s penalty shoot-out time for the High Street

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In the lead. Seconds away from winning. Then, suddenly, it’s all gone horribly wrong –can it be pulled back from the brink and the nation breathe a sigh of relief? Only time will tell.

No, not England’s World Cup run, but High Street retailers. Four years ago – at the time of the last World Cup – things were going quite well. Now look at them. At best it is a score draw, probably with penalties looming. And no one knows if the High Street can win.

With many people bored of the beautiful game picking up their phones to go shopping while keeping half an eye on the score, mobile is also likely to be the Jordan Pickford save that sees the High Street through to the next round.

I have been saying it all through 2018, the High Street needs to tap into tech to survive. The High Street has to become part of the internet and the internet part of the High Street – this is the simple reality of the retail today.

Now both grassroots campaign and veteran retailer Bill Grimsey have, separately, called for… technology to work with the High Street to save it from elimination. And make no mistake, it is in the knock out round.

The problem is that to consumers the High Street and the Internet are not different things: shoppers are way more omni-channel than we give them credit for. Bricks and mortar retailers have long treated the two worlds – the real and the digital – as separate in every way, right down to even insisting that excellent customer service is essential online, while delivering an utterly appalling experience in-store.

To shoppers, though, all these ‘channels’ don’t exist. To shoppers there are just retailers – or in the Amazon world, just products – they want to buy them as and when they choose. That might be on the web after careful research. That might be in a store because they are out and about or on their way to the movies. It might, as the football is proving, picking up a mobile or tablet and idly buying stuff while we await another Harry Kane penalty.

Focussing on channels makes sense, in a way, from the ‘running the business’ point of view, but it really doesn’t reflect how people shop.

Wading through the masses of literature out this week on how to save the High Street, we find again and again that the key is technology integrated into stores because that is how people shop. This is the simple fact of retail today: 55% of consumers use a smartphone during their in-store shopping. However, 78% shoppers prefer traditional stores because of the ability to see and touch a product in situ. In addition, 67% want items immediately, without having to wait for delivery time.

This is the power the High Street still has. It can offer zero delivery time and can offer physical contact with the goods. But it has to also cater for those 55% using their smartphone in store.

Stores also have to stop being such an awful place to be. They are hot, cramped, and often badly stocked. The staff can be rude and helpful – especially at the weekend – and often can’t help with the simplest of requests.

But more over you have to queue. Many shoppers claim that they don’t ‘trust’ checkout free shopping, but they are wrong. The queuing is the worst part of the shopping experience and once they have seen a new way to do it then they too will change their minds.

Tesco is no fool: would it really join a growing throng of retailers investing in checkout free tech if it didn’t have a pretty good idea that it will transform the shopping experience?

Once the supermarkets have done it, it will be forced on High Streets stores to follow suit. And they will have to make the shop part of the overall retail experience, one that includes online and mobile, or they will go under.

Will the High Street become a ghost town, as empty as England’s trophy cabinet? No – the store spaces will be taken over by those companies (old and new) that get it right and deliver what shoppers want from a store. This isn’t the end of the High Street, merely a changing of the Guard. Like Kylian Mbeppe seeing off Lionel Messi.

Image: Fotolia

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