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High streets must change if they are to thrive (with extra analysis of the online advantage)

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High streets must invest and adapt to the rise of online to ensure a prosperous future, new research out today suggests. Filling empty shops and offering a wider choice are among the key priorities for town managers countering the growth of ecommerce, the report, carried out for the British Property Federation by Ipsos Mori, says. But the report also finds the high street is important to shoppers and local residents.

“Despite constant worries about its health, the survey shows that the high street still occupies a special place in British hearts,” said Ben Page, chief executive, Ipsos MORI. “Although most forecasts predict more and more online shopping, consumers prefer high street shopping for many categories. Our high streets will be safe if …they continue to adapt.”

The report struck a blow for bricks and mortar in the week of Cyber Monday, which this year fell on December 3 and has in recent years become the biggest online selling day of the year.

The study found 83% of the 1,465 adults who were questioned for the study think the high street – defined as the main street of their nearest village or town, or the main shopping street near their home in the city – is better for buying some items than shopping online. Some 91% think the success of their local high street is important for their area, while 83% say their area would be worse off without one. And 75% say they visit their local high street at least once a week, and one in eight visiting it every day. Indeed, 30% rate their local shopping street as nicer than out of town shopping centres, while 42% prefer out of town.

But 34% feel their high street is getting worse, while 18% think it’s getting better and 48% say it’s staying the same.

Asked what would increase their high street’s attractiveness, 42% said a better choice of shops, while 31% opted for fewer empty shops and 14% a better or more pleasant environment, and 7% better transport links.

Liz Peace, chief executive of the British Property Federation, said: “Almost one third of people say they would visit their high street more regularly if there were fewer empty shops, demonstrating how areas can quickly fall in to a spiral of decline. Urgent action is needed to encourage investment back in to struggling high streets to fill up the empties, increase footfall and restore some pride to these much-loved places.”

Meanwhile, a study of 2,000 shoppers by eDigitalResearch, Customer Experience at Christmas (link to study via short survey to download), found 25% feel their shopping experience improves online at Christmas, while 42% feel their in-store experience worsens at Christmas. More than half (51%) put that down to better price (51%) and range (51%), but other attractions include flexible delivery options (33%) and clear messages about last ordering dates (24%).

Those that rate in-store shopping at Christmas do so for reasons included price (51%), atmosphere (46%), stock availability and range (35%) and longer opening hours (32%).

“As marketplaces become more and more competitive, service really is the only way to set your brand apart from the rest,” said Derek Eccleston, commercial director at eDigitalResearch. “Previous eDigitalResearch consumer research suggests that happy, satisfied customers are likely to be loyal towards your brand, leading to repeat purchases and added revenue.”

Our view: It’s unlikely a report for the British Property Federation would come out against the high street, but this study does highlight an important point in the ecommerce vs stores debate: most people like to go to shops. But that’s a long way from saying they don’t want to shop online: what we’ve discovered in recent years is that, indeed, people like to shop online or in store, whereever or however is most convenient to them at any given moment. We believe the high street will do best when it adapts to the reality of multichannel and online shopping.

Earlier this week Network Rail announced its first ecommerce parcel shop open to all retailers and all carriers, and high streets would do well to incorporate such shops in to their landscape. Multichannel retailers find that when shoppers visit their stores to pick up Click and Collect orders they see those shoppers spending more in store. The same is even true when items are returned. Surely, then, high streets as a whole could also benefit from such an innovation, and an empty shop could be used to test the theory in the short-term.

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