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Reclaim the High Streets

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More bad news for the High Street – it had its worst year since 2009, according to the BDO High Street Sales Tracker. The figures mark the third month in a row of negative growth and the fourth consecutive February with no growth. Things are getting tough out there.

Last week we were awash with figures about how online and High Street shopping is fairing, which made at best cautionary reading. Digital platforms are seeing growth, but it is slowing, while the High Street is, well, on a bit of a low.

This week’s news is dominated by more bad news for the High Street, but again we are seeing more cautionary notes from analysts and the tin-foil hatted experts that things in retail generally are not all rosy.

There is a sheen that things are going well: sales online are up and growing, and some retailers such as Domino’s Pizza are doing really well both digitally and in the real world. Yet there is an undercurrent of worry throughout all sectors of the industry.

Politically, Britain’s retailers have the Brexit Sword of Damocles hanging over them, along with the potential impact of whatever Donald Trump might do next. Whatever your political leanings, both these things bring nothing but uncertainty to both shoppers and retailers and uncertainty is bad for business.

Aside from these geo-political shenanigans, there is also a growing worry that many consumers are getting ticked off with retailers not offering the kind of customer experience that they feel they deserve.

According to a study commissioned by marketing technology company Zeta Global –conducted by Sapio Research – nearly half (48%) of respondents considered their retail experience to be merely ‘average’, while a further 11% believe that their favourite shops provide poor service, and they have to shop around as a result.

I have waxed lyrical many times (here’s just one example) about how the gap between what consumers now expect and what is delivered to them in terms of customer service, customer experience and personalisation is widening. It seems that now there is data to prove it.

And this is worrying. While retailers fret about investment in new tech in the face of such an uncertain future, this gap is only likely to widen.

But where there are challenges like this some retailers are going to finds opportunities and technology investments to make your brand more engaging don’t have to break the bank. As we show this week there are a number of retailers who are looking to up the ante, albeit just a smidge, with some natty little tweak that seem to make a difference.

Debenhams for example, has significantly increased in-store visitors by rolling out an omnichannel appointment system that allows customers to book personal shopper sessions in 88 key stores through their mobiles.

A nameless sportswear vendor has installed shelf-edge IoT, smart changing rooms and given its staff smartwatches to make itself more useful and, well, just a bit more sexy.

And a small company called IVALO has created what it thinks is the Airbnb model of Tinder for small fashion retailers. IVALO functions as a sales platform where fashion brands list their products and send them to the end customer from their own storage, with IVALO transmitting orders in exchange for a commission.

Capping it all off, Mansfield has become the first town centre in the UK to upgrade to Rewarding Visits technology, which will see its shopping areas transformed into ‘digital high streets’.

These small but significant services show that it doesn’t take much in this kind of market to differentiate oneself from the herd. And right now that is all you need to do to reclaim both the online momentum and reclaim the High Street – and at least soften the blow when the sword falls.

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