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What customers want from the high street: research offers answers

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It seems UK shoppers remains torn between the merits of online and high street shopping, according to two studies out this week.

On the one hand, it seems, consumers would rather buy in-store, according to the 65% of respondents to a Hitachi Consulting UK study who said just that.

On the other hand, a Casio study found that only 39% of us would actually spend more than half of their shopping time this Christmas on the high street. Some 31% would spend less than half their time there, and 3.2m people would not buy a single present on the high street at all. That’s 40% more than at the same time last year.

While at first the findings seem at odds, they echo MyHigh.St research, High Street 2012, of earlier this year, which found that while many would rather shop on the high street than online, most actually bought online, for both practical time and money-saving reasons.

Both of today’s studies also have potentially valuable insights into what draws customers online and what does, or would attract, them to the high street.

The Hitachi Consulting UK study, which quizzed 1,000 UK adult consumers, found that beyond the 65% who would rather buy in shops, 20% said they preferred to shop online, while 13% preferred to use a combination of channels.

When asked what in-store technology would improve the physical shopping experience, 54% said they wanted to get more personalised discounts and promotions that were specific to their needs and preferences. Four in 10 (40%) named in-store kiosks, iPads and computer terminals that allow customers to check stock and order for home delivery, while the same proportion voted for self-checkout was mentioned by 40% of those who answered. Among 18-24-year-olds the option was mentioned by 70%.

Asked about other factors that would attract people to the store, 53% said they’d appreciate having items they wanted in stock more consistently, while 21% said they’d choose a high street store over an etailer if sales staff were more knowledgeable. This was true for 36% of those earning more than £100,000 a year, of whom 55% would walk out of a shop if service was poor.

“Despite the massive growth in online shopping over the years,” said Chris Gates, director of retail at Hitachi Consulting UK, “it’s good to see that consumers haven’t fallen out of love with the British high street. The retail sector has clearly been having a difficult time lately, but our research shows that in-store shopping still has a crucial role in the modern shopping journey.

“The real challenge for retailers is therefore to focus on the areas that consumers really value when it comes to the in-store experience, by implementing better management systems, employee training and self-service options, whilst also promoting the flexibility and convenience of their online offering as well.”

Meanwhile, Casio’s research, which questioned 2,065 adults through YouGov, highlighted some of the things about high street stores that drove its respondents to shop online. Some 36% named in-store overcrowding, while long queues were cited by 22%.

But, in common with the Hitachi study, the human factor was important for 49% of those who took part, and who said interacting with other people was important when shopping in-store.

Other positives about the high street included wandering around and looking for inspiration (26%), being able to see and touch products (25%), and the ability to take goods away there and then (13%).

Guy Boxall, senior product marketing at Casio Business Division, said: “Although the high street is facing a big challenge Christmas, retailers should see this research as a challenge to improve the in-store shopping experience, rather than the nail in the coffin. We are social creatures, and the desire to spend time with each other, particularly at Christmas, is never going to go away.

“Retailers need to use this glimmer of hope as an opportunity to attract shoppers back to the store by looking at affordable innovative technologies now accessible to all retailers. Whether it’s incorporating mobile devices on the shop floor or setting up a new point-of-sale system, the chance is there to totally transform consumer behaviours and bring them back to the high street in 2013.”

Our view: Both these studies come from the point of view of improving the high street experience – and that’s certainly what consumers seem to want, if these studies are to be believed. Shopping, especially at this time of year, has always been more fun when it’s an excursion, maybe involving a meal out or another leisure activity. What’s never been fun is the mad rushing around the shops trying to find the actual item required in a limited period of time, contending with queues, crowds and out-of-stocks along the way.

And, of course, the internet means that we no longer have to do the not-fun shopping in the flesh, as long as we’ve planned a little way ahead, because we can buy online instead. But excursion shopping remains a treat – and the onus in both these studies is on retailers to bring into store the online innovations that make internet buying so convenient. That would mean the ability to order out-of-stock items, or those that simply aren’t stocked, for home delivery. This also has the advantage of saving the sale and meaning shops don’t lose out to online.

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