Is it just us or does it seem like a week doesn’t go by without hearing about another high-street brand announcing that they’re closing stores and cutting jobs? Marks and Spencer. House of Fraser. Poundworld. New Look. And that’s just in the past couple of weeks. Last year alone, UK’s high streets suffered 5,855 store closures, more than in any year since 2010 (at a rate of 16 stores a day). And 2018 is showing all of the signs that it’s going to break that record.

So now what? Are we slowly starting to become numb to news about the demise of the high-street as we know it? Are we simply supposed to accept this as the inevitable and look forward to a future when the high-street is nothing more than a graveyard of retails past?

These were the types of questions that came up at our recent Retail X roundtable event in London, where several UK eCommerce professionals came together to share their thoughts on the challenges that exist in this ever-evolving industry. And while these insights certainly highlight the fact that all is far from rosy where online and offline retail is concerned, there is hope for the high-street, despite the headlines.

Retail versus digital – can’t we all just get along?

There’s no doubt about it – consumer behaviour has, without question, been one of the main drivers that have contributed to the volume of store closures that we’re seeing now more than ever before. And in some ways, this ‘shift in consumer behaviour’ is to blame for the ‘bricks versus clicks’ mentality that many high-street retailers have adopted. But therein lies the problem with modern retail. Because looking at physical retail and online retail as separate entities is quite possibly the biggest mistake that retailers are making, and until we, as an industry, start to look at ‘retail’ and ‘eCommerce’ as one unified entity, the pattern we’re seeing on the high-street is undoubtedly going to continue.

It’s really no different to the traditional friction that companies often experience between their sales and marketing teams. The two departments aren’t aligned, but instead work independently towards two very different goals. In retail, it’s similar, except in this case, it’s the Head of Retail and the Head of Digital who are working towards two separate (typically unrelated) KPIs. For the digital teams in question, getting buy-in from the offline team can be challenging to say the least. Why? Because maybe they’ve been used to doing things a certain way for umpteen years, and may not see the true value of digital. Perhaps the company decided to invest a huge chunk of budget into technology a couple of years ago and created an app, only to find that no one actually uses it! Or maybe, just maybe, they’re scared. Scared that taking a leap into the online world will dilute a brand that has been synonymous with the high-street. Scared that having an online offering is never going to match the experience that a customer would get when they walk into a physical store.  

However, all is not lost. There is, in fact light at the end of the tunnel and it’s possible to make the ‘bricks versus clicks’ war a thing of the past. Unfortunately, there’s no ‘one size fits all’ solution that’s going to save all brands from store closures. But high-street brands do need to take action in order to survive, and in order to do that, they need to really start asking themselves these two questions…

Who are our customers?
How do they shop?

Once they’ve figured this out, it’s just a case of connecting the dots (the dots being online and offline activities 99% of the time!)

Invest in technology (wisely)

eCommerce is truly all about smart investment. So often, brands either overinvest or underinvest in technology and, as a result, end up without the return on investment they were expecting. When it comes to choosing how your brand is going to invest in digital, it doesn’t necessarily have to mean going down the Artificial Intelligence and Augmented Reality path, and blowing an ungodly amount of cash on the latest technological advancements. Instead, it could mean making sure that your online store is fully optimised for mobile. Or implementing an omnichannel strategy so that your customers can order online, and pick up in-store, or order in-store and have items delivered to their home. Or maybe it means utilising online marketplaces to clear overstock at the end of a season. In reality, it’s probably a combination of all these things. The bottom line is that it’s no longer a question of if you should be investing in technology. It’s a question of how you should be investing.

RELATED: Why Amazon Tax Won’t Fix the High Streets Woes

Create a stellar customer experience

The adoption of digital into your retail strategy should never be something that dilutes your brand but instead amplifies it. It’s absolutely possible to give your customers a fantastic online and offline experience while still remaining true to your brand values. And we’re not just talking about creating a stunning online store that has all of the bells and whistles that will have shoppers flocking to it. We’re talking about the importance of human interaction in the customer journey. When you have an online and offline offering, it’s inevitable that customers will, at some point have to deal with a human (be it a customer service advisor through online chat, or a sales advisor in-store). We cannot stress enough just how important it is to ensure that all staff, both online and offline are fully trained and equipped to help shoppers at any point along the customer journey. WE HAVE to start viewing online and offline activity as one unified entity. It’s essentially the difference between these two scenarios:

Scenario 1: A customer arrives at a store to collect their online order and a well-trained member of staff being able to not only fulfil that order but also make suggestions on other items that have arrived into the store based on that shopper’s order history.

Scenario 2: A customer arrives at a store to collect their online order and a member of staff has no idea how to check if the order has arrived to the store, so they spend 20 minutes in the back searching for a package. Meanwhile, the customer taps their foot, repeatedly glances at their watch and promises themselves that they’ll never make another click and collect order again.

Test, test…then test some more

Testing is the key to discovering what does and doesn’t work for your brand both online and offline. What works wonders for one brand might bomb for another, so as you introduce new technology and features to your audience, it’s vital that you launch, analyse and iterate. The more you know about your audience and their expectations, the greater chance you have of not just reaching, but exceeding them. You should be testing shipping and logistics methods to payment processes, to shopping cart abandonment campaigns, and everything in between. eCommerce moves fast, and your customers move even faster, so make sure that you’re running right alongside them at all times. 

When we look at the future of retail, it would be unrealistic (not to mention naïve) to think that the high-street will look exactly the same as it does now in 20 years’ time. But is that reason to simply accept that the death of the high-street is ‘just the way things have to be’? Perhaps if more brands start to embrace digital and redefine the word ‘retail’ so that it automatically incorporates ‘eCommerce’ into its meaning, the ‘bricks versus clicks’ tide might finally turn, paving the way for a new wave of shopping as we know it.

Thank you to all of the retailers who took part in the Retail X Roundtable event. Stay tuned for more Kooomo events coming your way soon!

Do you think that the high-street doomed, or could the future of retail still include physical stores? We’d love to hear your thoughts! Get in touch through any of our social media channels, Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn using the hashtag #futureofretail.