Written by Dan Whytock, Founder and Managing Director of DownYourHighStreet.com
With major retailer reporting disappointing sales figure over Christmas 2018 some fear more closures of high street stores.
The Internet is often regarded as the ‘problem’ – as more customers order goods from homes and spend less time on the high street. However, this reflects a lack of understanding of how digital works in the retail environment.
Instead we should be asking if the Internet can be used to breathe new life into 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.
Spearheaded by Mary Portas the government high street initiative was unsuccessful mainly because it did not have a clear and significant digital plan. Understanding the reasons why customers will continue to choose to shop online, and how bricks and mortar stores can still play an important role in the shopping experience, is the key to a strategy that gives customers the best of the options available. Let’s review the issues and the opportunities.
Customers use e-commerce options for choice and convenience. Even when they decide to go visit the high street, many will have done their research online before setting out. They like to know what shops are available locally and if they’ll be able to find what they want.
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 E-commerce in 2018.
However, almost half of UK independent retailers still do not have a selling presence online. These retailers face three main challenges when it comes to the successful adoption of e-commerce; time, cost, and know-how. Their expertise is finding great products and creating a compelling buying experience – not building websites and integrating online shopping carts. 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 e-commerce – 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 omni-channel 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. Since 2015 ‘near me’ searches have doubled year-on-year. This suggests that 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.
High Street retailers can harness the Internet in 2019
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 specific products, and the option of click and collect.
For many sellers, businesses such as eBay and Amazon have opened a new revenue stream. However, smaller bricks and mortar boutique retailers are likely to get lost in the sprawling marketplace that includes online-only sellers selling thousands of products. 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.
Enhancing bricks and mortar service in 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 adopt this approach and provide customers with expertise-focused extras that support and enhance the online shopping experience.
Understanding customers better with online data
Data also plays a big part in a co-supportive omni-channel 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 provides the most cost-effective way to conduct valuable market research and behaviour studies. It allows retailers to analyse page analytics and activity patterns, the types of posts followers respond to, conduct polls on customer likes and dislikes, and in addition, to keep an eye on the competition.
Digital is here to stay, and retailers need to embrace it, using it to enhance their customer relationships. As it becomes easier and more affordable to use e-commerce, traditional and online retailing can work together, and our high streets can become vigorous, vibrant places again.