The high street is dead – an emotive and unsettling headline that has found a home in newspapers (ironically, another traditional institution of yesteryear that is dying a slow, painful death) for several years now.
It’s a sorry state of affairs when store after store stand unoccupied with whitewashed windows and a “thanks for your custom but we’re out of here” note sellotaped to the door.
Our elders reflect on a time when independent butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers ruled the retail sphere. Greengrocers that had been in families for generations would provide fresh, flavoursome and locally-sourced produce at a fair price. A small town wouldn’t have 5+ supermarkets like they do today, nor could you order a weekly food shop with a few clicks of a mouse. Back then, a “mouse” was just a rodent, and the word “internet” could easily have been mistaken for complete gibberish.
But times change. And boy, did they change drastically!
With the internet boom came a new way to shop. An exciting and novel way to discover, browse, consider and purchase, all from the comfort of your favourite armchair! No more facing inclement weather conditions to stock up on household supplies. Some poor sod in a delivery van will do that for you now.
It’s not hard to see how the digital shopping experience has outshined its bricks-and-mortar counterparts. It’s quick, easy, convenient, open-all-hours and competitively priced. Online reviews, such as the five-star rating system on Amazon, enable customers to make informed purchases – a tricky benefit to replicate in an in-store environment. There is no pressure from sales associates – or any judgment for that matter! Yes, I’m looking at you, snooty shop assistant from Pretty Woman…
Speaking of big mistakes, many retailers have fallen victim to underestimating the power of the internet, either by entering the digital marketplace with too little, too late, or not at all. The latter has allowed competitors – many of whom were newer, digitally-savvy companies - to dominate the online space.
ASOS is a prime example. An online-only fashion retailer that has grown from a small seedling at the turn of the millennium to the blooming multi-billion-pound business it is today.
Amazon.com – founded in Jeff Bezos’ garage in 1994 – was intended as an online marketplace for books, before diversifying to a plethora of other product types in pursuit of total world domination. What’s particularly fascinating about Amazon, however, is the new avenue they are exploring - or road, plaza, drive… Yes, Amazon have opened physical stores accessible from the street, with real shopping baskets!
In 2015, Amazon Books was opened in Amazon’s hometown of Seattle and has since expanded across the US. 2018 saw the launch of Amazon Go – cashier-less grocery stores - located in Seattle (of course!), but also Chicago, San Francisco and New York, and with plans to expand internationally soon.
Entitled the Just Walk Out Shopping Experience, Amazon bosses are clearly going for a “does what it says on the tin approach”, doing away with checkouts altogether in favour of an app that tracks items as you shop.
The idea of a once online-only platform changing lanes to join the high street has given me food for thought, and led me to wonder what other opportunities exist for omnipresent retailing.
High street has the edge in one major way: experience.
Consider the strong scent of bath bombs whenever you pass a Lush outlet. Or the unmatchable feeling of handling solid, well-made utensils and apparatus in cookware shops. That’s not a feeling that I can replicate on Amazon. Shopping in store offers tactile, sensory experiences that simply cannot be matched by pixels on a screen. But retailers will need to embrace their digital side too if they are to not only survive, but thrive in an age where shopper demands are higher than ever.
Take Argos. Founded in 1972, their retail stores are unlike most shops. Instead of rows and rows of shelves bursting with merchandise, you are greeted with touchscreen order points and a collection desk where the stock arrives from a conveyor belt “in the back”. As well as offering a same-day Fast Track home delivery option on certain items, it also possible to reserve purchases for collection in store, ensuring that many of those last-minute birthday gifts are sorted with minimal fuss. After all, it’s much easier to quickly browse through the relevant section of a catalogue (whether physical or digital) to locate the perfect gift than it is to spend 30 minutes trawling the aisles, being distracted left, right and centre by sale posters and promotions.
The better the customer experience, the more likely customers are to return. So why not offer a service which connects the digital realm with the physical one in a streamlined, efficient and easy way? But whilst Argos have modernised their technology to keep up with the times, their in-store experience does not break new ground.
That accolade would be reserved for Apple who were one of the first high street retailers to place experience at their core. Consumers are welcome to handle, play around and test the latest tech in their own time, without overbearing, pushy sales advisors breathing down their necks. There are advisors on hand, of course, but somehow their casual attire (the iconic blue t-shirts) and relaxed attitude feels a world away from the rolled-up striped shirt sleeves of yesteryear. And customers love it. When have you ever passed an Apple Store and not seen it full to the brim with eager tech enthusiasts of all ages?
But what else could they – and other bricks and mortar retailers – offer to elevate the customer experience to something altogether more fun and worthwhile?
AND SOCIAL MEDIA
In August 2018, Tiffany & Co. launched a new experiential space in Covent Garden, London – marketed as an “inventive concept store” - complete with a personalisation bar. The aim? To attract a younger, more social media-savvy audience to the 180+ year old jewellers.
A #MakeItTiffany engraving machine enabled customers to personalise pendants with initials and motifs, whilst the world-first Tiffany vending machine is stocked up with Eau de Parfum – both surely a great draw for gift-seeking tourists and London locals alike.
With their famed Blue Box Café in New York – where patrons can actually enjoy breakfast at Tiffany’s – the brand certainly know how to make a splash on social media. Waves of Instagram influencers share smug shots whilst sipping tea amid the unmistakable Tiffany-blue décor. It’s enough for anyone to experience a touch of the green-eyed monster? Or should that be cyan-eyed?
Personalisation doesn’t always mean initial-emblazoned stainless steel letter openers, or a wristwatch engraved with a soppy message from a loved one.
Take buying a car, for example. After purchasing a home, parting with a five-figure sum for a new set of wheels is one of the biggest monetary commitments you can make. It’s obviously helpful, then, to be able to visualise exactly how your new car will look before placing an order.
From choosing different alloys to the fabric on the seats and the colour of the wing mirrors, interactive 3D screens with personalisable content can provide customers with the reassurances they need before parting with their hard-earned cash.
Racing clear of the competition in this regard is Tesla, with customers able to order personalised vehicles in as little as 60 seconds.
Some bricks-and-mortar stores take interactive elements in a different direction. Whilst many retailers feature digital displays to promote certain products and offers, stores including Debenhams and Tesco utilise screens to retain custom. If an item of clothing is not available in-store in a particular size or colour, you can order it online from within the store there and then. By offering this option, shops are improving the customer experience and reducing the likelihood of customers searching for an alternative option from a competitor.
High street opticians firm, Specsavers, also saw an exciting opportunity to engage customers through interactivity. Their Frame Styler technology uses facial analysis to scan face shape and features to identify styles and colours that will look good. Customers can then virtually try them on, to see first-hand how different frames can change their appearance from a multitude of angles. It may sound like a glorified mirror, but it’s a great example of how digital technology has evolved to solve customer pain points.
Global sportswear brand Nike takes its name from the Greek goddess of victory, and their digital team could certainly claim a big win in November 2018 with the launch of the new 68,000 square-foot flagship store on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street in Manhattan, NY.
Nike describes the store on their news website:
On each floor, ground-breaking features offer spaces and experiences that are both personal and responsive. Throughout, consumers can enjoy services that are deeply customizable and effortlessly smart and seamless.
The future of brick-and-mortar retail counts on engaging, personal shopping experiences that respond as quickly - and as personally - as its digital counterpart. The space must be able to communicate with its city through people and digital services, inviting a conversation that’s synchronized to the customer.
And that is precisely what the brand delivers. Following a major update to the Nike App, customers are now offered a range of experiential choices through their smart device.
The Nike App includes:
Scan to Try – request an item to be brought to you for a quick fitting.
Shop the Look – scan a code on an in-store mannequin to browse the items that they are wearing, check specific sizes and have the items sent to a fitting room ready for trying on.
Instant Checkout – skip the lines and check out from within the app.
Most of the above sound like common sense services to offer in this digital age, and yet are not commonplace – far from it.
A survey by Ovum in 2015 saw technology consumers predicting what would be available in-store by 2020. 70% of respondents stated interactive signage, with 68% and 67% anticipating app-based ordering and personalised in-store messaging respectively. Arguably the most exciting changes in technology listed in the survey are smart fitting rooms (63%) and RFID-based whole trolley/basket checkout (42%).
The year 2020 is highly unlikely to provide us with a radically different retail landscape, where seamless, digitally-enhanced customer experiences are provided as a matter of course. Thanks to emerging technologies, exciting ideas and new partnerships, however, 2025 could prove a different story entirely.