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GUEST ANALYSIS Falling footfall means retailers must adapt to thrive

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According to independent industry figures released this week by the British Retail Consortium and Springboard , high-street footfall has fallen to its lowest level since February 2014.

For smaller retailers in particular, this announcement may set alarm bells ringing. Relying solely on a bricks and mortar strategy may no longer be sufficient when it comes to keeping pace in the evolving retail industry.

As online looks set to become the primary shopping channel, it’s easy to assume that retail giants such as Amazon and Argos will take the upper hand. Both have networks for sales and distribution combined with a loyal and well-established customer base.

But this is not necessarily the case. If they respond well to these shifts in the market, retailers of all shapes and sizes across the UK can ensure they retain a place in the minds and hearts of the nation’s shoppers.

The ‘always on’ retail landscape

Over the last five years we have witnessed some radical changes in retail. Shopping has become not just omnichannel, but omnipresent. Long gone are the days of fixed opening hours and high-street queues; consumers can now buy a flight to New York on their morning commute, refresh their wardrobe from their desks and have dinner ordered, cooked and delivered without moving from the comfort of their own sofa.

Some retailers are only now coming round to the realisation that e-commerce is a thriving industry and a golden opportunity. It’s a different world – and one that is driven by consumer convenience. But as numbers on the high-street decline, retailers need to rapidly adapt to operate on their customers’ terms, providing them with the goods and services they’re looking for at the right time and in the right place.

Retailers are still too slow with this, falling back on the kind of approach that has stood them in good stead in the past. This is no longer enough; if their customers are ‘always on’, so must they be. It really is a case of innovate or die.

Taking a multi-channel approach

As we increasingly become a digital first nation, shopping models need to follow suit. It’s not practical for most physical stores to offer 24/7 shopping; and moreover customers have become reluctant to spend time travelling to, and looking around, the high-street for many of their products. Put simply, there isn’t the demand to fill that traditional high-street supply.

Instead, it’s the retailers who combine a digital e-commerce strategy with their traditional model that are succeeding. At CitySprint, we work with many small retailers through our innovative specified hour delivery brand On the dot, and it’s clear that those that have the foresight to open up their stock to customers both online and offline, are the ones who are thriving.

Retailers must recognise a fundamental truth; time is a hugely precious commodity in today’s world. Consumers are increasingly attracted to the brands, products and services that save them time and make their lives easier.

By expanding their online offer, retailers have access to more touch-points with their customer; they can offer them the same goods (or even more) without requiring them to take the time out of their day. The benefits to both retailers and consumers are clear.

This attitude and ethos is vital across every part of the customer experience journey – not just the online purchase. In many cases, stores need to up their game when it comes to customer experience, ensuring their bricks and mortar presence is a complement to their online offering.

Consumers favour a personalised shopping experience, whether that’s online or in-store, with retailers adopting a tailored approach based on the data they gather online. And it’s often the smaller, nimbler outlets who are more easily able to implement these new approaches. Not only can they have clearer visibility of the stock on the shelves, they may find they have a closer relationship with their customer. Both these aspects put them in an ideal position to spot new ways to help improve the lives of their customers.

Prioritising convenience

Shoppers have come to expect, and even demand, total convenience throughout their purchasing journey, from the point of sale right through to the delivery. Most retailers have only fairly recently woken up to the opportunity presented by more convenient fulfilment of online orders, or the opportunities of an in-store delivery service. After all, who wants to carry home a bulky purchase when they are on their way out for dinner? A Metapack survey from earlier this year tangibly demonstrates this, with respondents stating they are six times more likely to select a delivery option that best suits them.

This isn’t just an opportunity for the likes of Amazon and Argos. The On the dot model, for example, means that even the smallest of retailers can offer customers – online and offline – the kind of ultra-convenience that sets them apart from competitors.

Let’s be clear. Bricks and mortar stores are still an important part of many retail strategies, offering brand building benefits such as opportunities to show off a unique approach to customer service or experience. Despite the fall in footfall, there are more positive signs from retail locations that have an increased leisure offer.

But by keeping pace with the ever-changing industry, retailers of any size have an opportunity to be on a level playing field with the retail giants and compete for a share of the same shopper audience.

And, as shoppers increasingly move off the high-street and onto digital platforms, retailers need to be ready to engage with them in the right place and at the right time; offering a service dictated by the buyer on the terms most convenient to them.

Patrick Gallagher is chief executive of same-day distribution company CitySprint

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