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GUEST COMMENT Is the future of retail a hybrid high street?

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Mark Zablan is CEO of Emplifi

After a short, sweet post-lockdown boom, in which many UK retailers returned to pre-pandemic sales levels, we’re now facing a recession. Inflation has hit a 40-year high that will undoubtedly impact how much customers can afford to spend during the retail ‘Golden Quarter’. Sales predictions for the festive period are just as bleak, with Brits to spend £2.51 billion less compared to 2021 amid a cost-of-living crisis.

It’s worrying news for the high street, but it doesn’t need to be. As we’ve seen in previous recessions, and particularly during the pandemic, businesses that embrace digital innovation are more likely to remain competitive and spur growth. So, it’s no surprise that even the most familiar brick-and-mortar brands, like Primark, have adopted omnichannel strategies—combining the best of in-store and online shopping to create the ultimate customer experience.

So, how can other brick-and-mortar businesses go hybrid to future-proof their retail operations and cater to the modern consumer? And what does this mean for the high street of tomorrow? 

Creating ultra-personalised experiences

Ever received an email from a company that thanks you for ‘being one of our most important, valued, cherished customers’, and then noticed they spelt your name wrong? Me too. Too many of today’s brands seem to offer this same impersonal experience.

While it’s tough to recreate the personal touch of an in-store advisor – one that can ask how your day’s been, recommend the perfect product, and send you on your way with a smile and a discount voucher to boot – online shoppers still crave genuine personalisation and expert insights. In fact, four out of five customers (80%) claim they’re more likely to buy from a brand if it tailors the shopping experience personally to them. Luckily, this is where live commerce can enhance the online customer experience.

Live video capabilities harness advanced digital technologies to simulate an in-store shopping interaction, but all from the comfort of a customer’s home. Through a live video call, shoppers enjoy one-to-one consultations with a product or sales specialist, with the chance to ask questions and watch all the demonstrations they need to make the correct purchasing decision. 

These virtual consultations are ideal for high-ticket items or purchases that require that little extra consideration. They also boost upselling opportunities for retailers too, with advisers able to offer the perfect product recommendations and add-ons during and after the session, particularly once the customer’s data is combined with intelligent algorithms. It’s simply the same level of engagement as in-store, with all the classic benefits of ecommerce. And it’s really working—with big brands like M&S using live video to boost conversion rates by up to 40% and enjoy consumer satisfaction scores of 92%.

And live video isn’t limited to shopping, many well-known brands are also leveraging the same technology for customer support. For example, earlier this year Currys launched RepairLive, which connects the customer with Currys’ expert repairs engineers via a video (with the camera on or off), the engineer then either fixes the issue remotely or arranges for the item to be sent back to Currys. With this approach Currys is providing a truly personalised service to its customers, making sure they not only find the right product but that they can enjoy it as long as possible.

Putting brick and mortar back on the big stage

Much like a rock band graduating from the back of a pub to Wembley Arena, brands that carry out successful one-to-one interactions through video can then scale up their live-feed shopping experiences across their website, social media, and partner websites to engage a large audience at scale. 

This mass-market appeal may require an extra level of showmanship. As a result, retailers might like to train their top salespeople to become video influencers or even create ‘dark stores’, a shop or studios specially designed for live-shopping experiences. Out-of-town dark stores can help to minimise building rent premiums in expensive locations and enable 24/7 sales operations, serving customers from multiple geographic regions via video to broaden a retailer’s customer base. 

However, it’s clear that even when paired with video, brick-and-mortar shopping spaces remain crucial to the retail experience. But as McKinsey points out, brands must move quickly to get ahead: “Live commerce has become table stakes for successful consumer companies in Asia and is rapidly spreading to Europe and the United States. Pioneers have already achieved extraordinary reach and impact. Others wanting to follow their example will need to move quickly to design their own experiments to get the most out of this dynamic new channel.”

Ultimately, brick-and-mortar businesses simply can’t afford to wait for the recession to pass. They must embrace change now if they want to remain on top. Modern consumers are digitally savvy and increasingly social first. From behind their screens, they research and review products, check prices, complete purchases, activate discounts – and sometimes even purchase a product from one brand while standing in a competitor’s store. And while inflation will eventually deflate, customers will continue to shop with the retailers that offered them the best experiences through tough times. By adopting an omnichannel strategy today, built upon the ease and accessibility of online with the personal touch of in-store, businesses can foster a level of loyalty that sees them well through the recession – and into the good times ahead.

Mark Zablan is CEO of Emplifi

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