Rewriting the future of the high street: experience and choice will be key to the plot

When non-essential retail stores re-opened in April after months of lockdown restrictions, the UK saw a spike in sales, with high street footfall increasing two-fold in just seven days. It was clear that, whilst online shopping became the go-to over the last twelve months, consumers had missed some of the physical aspects of brick-and-mortar shopping.

According to PFS’ recent research report titled ‘Overcoming the Physical Disconnect’, 80% of consumers revealed they missed at least one aspect of the shopping experience while shopping online. This has led to as many as 40% of consumers claiming that their loyalty will revert to retail brands that have a high street presence in COVID’s aftermath.

But if April’s spike offered any glimmer of hope for the future of the high street in its current form, May’s equally sharp decline swiftly snuffed it out. Despite the nostalgia for lost in-store experiences, it was not enough to sustain consumer interest on a longer-term basis.

When nostalgia is not enough

It would seem that absence truly made the heart grow fonder in the case of the high street. PFS findings echoed this sentiment, that almost half (49%) of consumers missed the social aspect of shopping, deeming it a leisure activity.

Sadly, however, nostalgia alone is not enough to save the high street for good. The novelty will eventually wane, with more than one-third (34%) of consumers expecting to return to online shopping after the initial buzz has died down. At first glance, this is quite a modest figure, but critically it rises to 39% among millennials, and almost half (45%) of the Gen Z population. 49% of both demographics go on to affirm that when lockdown ends, they will continue to do the majority of their shopping online.

Keeping up in a “digital-first” age

To remain relevant, high street retailers must rapidly adapt – taking the aspects missed most by consumers during the lockdown, maximising them, and using them to their advantage. The shift from bricks to clicks doesn’t necessarily spell the end for the high street – but rather a challenge to the core functions of the physical store.

Rather than competing with the online realm, brands should instead ensure they balance the two by taking an experience-based approach; experientialism. For Gen Z in particular, more than one-third (37%) expect retailers to offer more of an in-store “experience” than they did before lockdown. This may include hosted events, catwalks, product launches, personalised makeovers, or even more quirky activities such as treasure hunts.

The White Company presents a great example of how the gap can be bridged by allowing customers to “shop live” online by connecting to a one-way video call with in-store experts, where they can explore products as if they were visiting a store. John Lewis has also been championing experientialism by introducing a number of virtual experiences recently to help support consumers’ changing lifestyles, including virtual sewing and cooking classes.

The drivers of success

It’s now increasingly apparent that retailers deliver a better customer experience when brick-and-mortar and eCommerce operations work hand in glove. When restricted to shopping online, consumers craved the in-store experience, but when they want convenience and a “one-click” purchase, they turn online. This is where omnichannel retail comes to the fore – putting brands in the strongest position to tick all the boxes and consumer demands. By converting physical stores into browsing locations to try, test, and experience, whilst positioning eCommerce as a transactional platform, retailers are more likely to meet future shopping requirements.

Underpinning this needs to be an effective fulfilment strategy and intuitive distribution network. Investment in functions such as buy online, pick-up in-store (BOPIS), buy online and ship-from-store (BOSS); as well as effective order management systems and distributed order management (DOM) solutions can help to better bridge the gap between both channels.

Flipping the switch

High street retailers can also make every square foot of space work for its money by doubling up existing physical stores as mini distribution centres. In this way, they can operate from a position of power, wielding strength and agility over their competitors – with collect in-store, ship-from-store, shop in-store or direct delivery all implemented from a single site.

If they are to remain competitive, retailers must ready themselves for changing consumer demands as cost, convenience and experientialism rise on the list of shopper priorities. “View in-store and ship to home” models will play a key role in this, and retailers must be proactive in adding these offerings to their armouries.

Maintaining profitable physical retail sites will allow high street retailers to flip the switch on their eCommerce-only competitors, fostering stronger customer relationships than ever before. Recent events do not necessarily spell the end for the high street, but in writing its future, experience and choice will be key to the plot.

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