There is much debate over the demise of the High Street, with the Internet seemingly being single handedly being responsible for the demise. In this piece I will explore whether this is the case and what we can do to try and make retail an art, like it used to be.
It was over a decade ago when Andrew Simms released his then controversial business book Tescopoly. The author told the story about how supermarkets bought up land on the edge of towns and in subarban areas and essentially stockpiled them. They then moved to buying units in town. Whilst single handidly changing the way people shopped by providing all the retail services that was once the provision of the local high street. We are talking, butchers, bakers and even key cutters.
The book also explores how Tesco and the other supermarkets used their buying power to “convince” farmers and other producers to supply them and their extensive supply chains as opposed to smaller more local purveyors.
Whilst the book goes deeper, including profiting from poverty, it does show how supermarkets created waves of ghost towns or even worse as Simms states it Clone Towns.
But why is this relevant? Well the demise of the high street and the local retailer was on its way long before the internet, seemingly took charge. In fact, a lot of the retailers that are claiming they are being hit by the internet are the exact same retailers that rose with the advent of clone towns. The same shops appearing on every high street, with no regionalisation to reflect the local area.
So it could be argued, that actually the current wave of retail issues is purely cyclical and the internet has just been the vehicle to drive the change.
Facing the music
A while back when I ran a music website, I explored why the landscape of music and music consumption had changed. It could be argued a similar pattern emerged in music with people embracing new hard formats to listen to music and moving on with the times in to eventually sales dropping dramatically and streaming becoming the new norm.
All of that is true and technology did drive change, largely thanks to Apple in the early days and more latterly Spotify and the like, originally driven by platforms such as Napster. However, similar to what was discussed in the previous section, the selling of music went through a similar pattern.
When I was younger I used to DJ back in Bristol and the West Country, some times venturing to London or Birmingham. However, this was so long ago, I didn’t have a laptop and software to create and mix playlists for me, I used those black bits of plastic on a turntable.
I used to go to Replay Records in Bristol, under a subway, right by the old bus station. It was close enough to Broadmead shopping centre but far enough away for it to be a genuine experience. They had decks in the shop where you could mix and listen to the tunes you had bought.
As I was in to Hip Hop this was my place. However the city was littered with local record shops. Old Market had shops that sold rock and more indie music. Park street was home to shops with dance music, in short they were everywhere.
Whilst the digital age definitely changed the music landscape without a shadow of doubt, it was originally altered by big corporates who took prime spots in shopping centres and provided just enough music outside the core mainstream, to make people feel they weren’t missing anything.
First HMV. Then came Our Price and then Virgin took over Our Price. The whole music retail scene was being eaten up. Ring any bells? These retailers are pretty much no more, with HMV bemoaning their fortunes, due to the internet. However, poor management in their history meant they simply didn’t keep up. Remember though, they were originally responsible for hundreds of smaller independent record shops closing.
A similar tale to what is currently happening on the high street.
So before we cry foul that the internet is ruining our high street, lets listen to the lessons retail have provided us in the past and understand, the potentially cyclical pattern. We also need to recognise that the internet has provided many customer benefits/ Benefits that bricks and mortar retailers have in the main, failed to embrace or have been too slow to adapt.
Another great example is ToysRUs in the UK. Setting up huge out of town toy sheds. At first they won the nations hearts by allowing kids to experience play. As they matured every inch was allocated for selling and the experience for kids was removed, leaving just big warehouses. They also failed to adapt for the digital age, allowing Amazon to swallow their share under their noses. ToysRUs went from stealing the toy shop from the high street by being bigger and cheaper, to losing their place, by somebody bigger and cheaper.
Whether we like it or not, as a nation, we are more time poor than ever. With this in mind, no wonder convenience is a massive factor in helping shape our shopping habits. What internet retailers have been great at, is trying to ensure we can not only buy things from their online stores that may not be readily available from the high street, but larger online retailers have been obsessing over convenience. Next day delivery. Order tracking. Pick a time slot for delivery. Same day delivery.
Even online retailers that haven’t obsessed over customer service have been effected, proving its not all plain sailing. Look at the different fortunes that somebody like, my former employers, boohoo had over some of its competitors. When I was at boohoo, we would try to find ways our delivery cut off time could be extended. We would look at ways we could cut the cloth differently with couriers to make it cheaper for our customers. Whereas if you look at somebody like Maplin who provided quite specialised equipment, but failed to invest in service, its UX or an eCommerce application that really added anything to its standing as a multi-channel operator, showing that a digital presence isn’t the be all and end all.
As our lives change and the world moves on, we need convenience. The beauty of the way the internet and online retailing has developed is that it can deliver this. Not just from a delivery aspect but also from a UX perspective. Hours of research and testing is spent on improving customer journeys on retail websites. Yes some of that is for pure commercial reasons, however it also aids us as customers.
Improved technology means the imagery that is seen on sites and the quality of video has increased astronomically and again, retailers that don’t adapt to this need for high quality content, could be the next victims of the retail cycles.
Its all about science
Whilst there are many experts in customer experience. Jobs exist now that were even conceived a couple of decades back, a lot is down to the reams of data processed by big machines. Testing platforms that can optimise on the move. Of course all supplemented by hugely intelligent data scientists and analysts that provide information to marketers and eCommerce professionals alike.
The early and perhaps, still, the best proponents of this are Amazon. The digital retail goliath grew from selling books online to the huge retailer, broadcaster and hardware company you know today. This all started from neat algorithms that identified trends and helped to improve customer experiences online, but all based on speed and convenience. As Amazon develops every sector it is unusual for them to spend much on trying to make sticky content, they are effectively the Google of retail. All built on strong data driven decisions that power the entire existence of the organisation.
Going back to convenience. Amazon realised a long time ago, that providing a great delivery proposition could engender loyalty. It worked and Amazon Prime is one of the most successful subscription services today. Not only do they generally (unless you live in rural Bedford) provide fast and accurate delivery, they have convinced you to pay upfront for the privilege. Yes they make you pay up front a quite healthy sum for deliveries you may make in the future. Genius. Remember, with all their data modelling, they would have already worked out the numbers. Yes you may order smaller and more frequently, but equally you are more likely to make more purchases to ensure you “get your money’s worth”
This commercial acumen and understanding of customer behaviour and value is something that the majority of bricks and mortar retailers would only dream of. They all have the opportunity, but they have preferred not to invest to the level needed in their technology and spent the profits elsewhere. This has come back to haunt them.
Retail isn’t dead
The simple truth of the matter is, retail isn’t dead. As with the comment of cyclical retail patterns, that is the current trend. Brands such as Apple and Nike are throwing up shops in key retail environments. However, rather than just putting up stores with shelves of their boxes, thy have reimagined what retail means. They have looked at their customer base and created retail experiences that will appeal to their customers. There is that combination of customer and experience again. The same terminology that eCommerce professionals use, but translated to physical retail.
The successful retailers of today look at their retail offerings as more than the confines of their four walls. They also look beyond just the physical products that they sell in the actual store. They see their stores as experiential platforms and useful marketing and brand tools.
One of my favourite executions of Nike’s retail presence is at The Grove in LA. The store has had several experiential areas, that in theory allow the customer to try before they buy, but in all honesty, it provides that element of theatre thats needed. They used to have an immersive basketball simulator that challenged users in their b-ball skills. They had a football (soccer) court where people could have a kick about and latterly, they have a running machine which expertly crafts for an individual to help aid their running.
All providing the theatre but creating real customer value. Showing for certain that retail isn’t dead, its just that businesses need to catch up.
The fact that many digital retailers are clamouring for a physical presence is further evidence that retail isn’t dead. The likes of Amazon, boohoo, RIPNDIP and adidas with its launch of NMD in London all created pop-up retail experiences. Brands like Amazon and Missguided are securing slightly longer term placements.
The more successful of the pop-up shops share a few commonalities. Perhaps the most common is creating an installation that will be talked about and perhaps more importantly provide photo opportunities for content hungry grammers. Whether thats with a cool frontage, urban interiors or just some cool people that provide a crowd with an interest point, again something way beyond the realms of standard retail.
Above all of this, even if the internet isn’t damaging retail, or isn’t the complete cause, one thing is for certain. If we want any form of retail experience on our high streets or in our town centres, local and central governments need to act. Something needs to be done to encourage both shoppers and retailers back in to the spaces before they are filled with charity shops or coffee shops.
The end (is not) nigh
Hopefully this piece has helped paint a slightly different perspective on the current retail landscape. Its not all down to internet retailers. Retailers just need to get good again. Perhaps they key is also to stop relying on chains and help local shopkeepers get back to connecting and selling quality products to their friends and neighbours.
The crux of how retail needs to shape up, is surely by getting closer to the customers again. Identifying the customer wants and needs. Understanding a customers desires and what will attract somebody to visit your store. Offer something different and dare I say it unique. It doesn’t have to cost the earth. Above all, embrace digital and make it a part of the customer experience and buying journey, then the whole retail perspective is modernised
I would love to hear your views. Feel free to comment on this article, even if you disagree or perhaps agree, let me know