The last few years have been long and difficult for the UK high street. We have already seen numerous store closures the loss of many big-name brands, and there may be many more – struggling retailers including Debenhams and Marks and Spencer, have reported disappointing sales figures over the 2018 Christmas period.
We often see the Internet as the ‘problem’ - as more people order goods from the comfort of their own homes and the all-important footfall drops. But, this is down to a lack of understanding of how digital works in the retail environment.
Instead, we should be asking if the Internet can be used as a way to breathe new life into UK high streets and save established brands, as well as champion smaller, independent retailers. This mix is the life-blood of the high street and every UK shopping street needs to contain both.
The failure of a previous government high street initiative spearheaded by Mary Portas to save our high streets was mainly down to the fact that it did not have a clear and significant digital plan. Understanding the reasons why customers have, and will continue, to choose to shop online, and how bricks and mortar still play a role in the shopping experience, is the key to creating a strategy that gives customers the best of all worlds.
People choose ecommerce for two fairly obvious reasons; choice and convenience. Even when they do decide to step out onto the high street, many will have done their research online first. They like to know what shops are available locally and whether they will be able to find what they are looking for.
Click and collect buying is increasingly popular; over half of shoppers preferred in-store click-collect to make a quick purchase without paying extra delivery charges or having to wait in for a courier, as reported by an E-Commerce Foundation study on UK ecommerce in 2018.
Yet, despite this, almost half of UK independent retailers still do not have a selling presence online. When it comes to the successful adoption of ecommerce, these retailers face three main challenges; time, cost, and know-how. Their expertise is finding great products and creating a compelling buying experience - not building websites and online shopping carts, so, in order to overcome these challenges, they need to find a solution that is low cost and low risk, and which is technologically simple and comes with access to expert support needed, if needed.
High street retailers must not ignore ecommerce - it’s here to stay and will continue to dominate, though there are signs of a return to physical high street shopping.
According to the same E-Commerce Foundation study, 93% of online consumers stated they also shop in physical stores, compared to 90% in 2016. 82% of Generation Y are omnichannel shoppers. It seems more people are beginning to realise the limitations of online shopping, and the importance of face-to-face interactions in their daily lives. These interactions can be part of a great buying experience - a friendly, knowledgeable, and helpful salesperson can help you feel great about a purchase.
Ethical and environmental concerns are also beginning to drive consumers to change their shopping habits both online and off; ‘near me’ searches have doubled year-on-year since 2015 suggesting people are beginning to seek out more locally produced and sold items. Consumers online are also still very loyal to local UK based sellers, with 93% of online purchases in 2017 by UK dwellers coming from UK sellers compared to 31% from EU countries.
• Finding a niche online
A strong online presence can help to boost visits to the high street by giving consumers the ability to search by location for particular products, and the option of click and collect.
For many sellers, the likes of Amazon and eBay have opened up a new revenue stream. However, smaller bricks and mortar boutique retailers are likely to get lost amongst the sprawling marketplace that includes online-only sellers selling thousands of products. Using specialised online marketplaces such as Etsy can help smaller sellers stand out from the crowd and are more cost-effective for smaller budgets. Another niche marketplace is DownYourHighStreet.com, which focuses specifically on independent bricks and mortar retailers, allowing retailers to create or integrate existing product inventories quickly with easily. The site also offers extra-traffic activities such as discounted Google advertising to attract a wider audience.
• Enhance bricks and mortar service for the digital age
A positive in-store experience that promotes and integrates its digital channels well will encourage customers to seek that retailer out for their next online purchase. Looking at larger retailers such as John Lewis and Apple Stores, they use their shops more like showrooms, providing customers with the opportunity to touch, feel and try out their products, and extra customer service offerings such as technical support, personal shopping and home design services. Smaller independent retailers can easily adapt this approach and provide customers with expertise-focused extras that support and enhance the online shopping experience.
• Use online data to better understand customers
Data also plays a big part in a co-supportive omnichannel strategy. What you learn about your online sales will help you to tailor store experiences towards your customers’ profile and preferences. Websites, e-commerce channels and social media are not just opportunities to promote to a wider audience, they are a means to interact and study the shopping and buying behaviours of customers to help tailor both in-store service and online offering. Social media, in particular, is the most cost-effective way to conduct valuable market research and behaviour studies - retailers can analyse page analytics and activity patterns, the types of posts followers respond to, conduct polls on customer likes and dislikes, and also keep an eye on their competitors.
Digital doesn’t mean the abandonment of traditional high street shopping. It can help retailers strengthen the relationships they have with their customers - and it doesn’t have to cost the earth. With easier, more affordable access to ecommerce, the high street can not only be saved but can thrive once more.