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The mistaken death of the British High Street

The High Street is not dead, it's just changing around the new holy trinity of modern retail - bricks, clicks and touch - says Primesight's commercial director, Chris Forrester.

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When something new comes along, over excited experts always like to proclaim the death of the old. In the last decade we have been promised the death of television, radio, (different yes but still here) and also the death of the great British High Street. Hmm.

Having been invited to take part in the excellent Mindshare Huddle for the second year running, Primesight’s involvement was to host a panel debate on the future of retail. As a result, I spent much of the last month exploring the development of the Retail market, looking at everything from the changes in where consumers physically shop, to their increased connectivity, all of which has contributed to changes in what we call the High Street.

A single Google search will present you with a host of commentators predicting the imminent death of the High Street. This is perhaps best highlighted by an article from The Independent earlier this year ‘High Street Blues: The slow death of retail Britain’, a convincing argument that predicted as many as 140 chains at risk in 2013.

We probably only need to look in the mirror to acknowledge how consumer purchasing behaviour has changed with 90% of music, 70% of books and 40% of electrical items expected to be bought online by 2015. So what chance is there for bricks and mortar, arguably the hardest hit by the increasingly connected and digital consumer?

A long time before most of us had even bought a book online, the supermarkets were being blamed for the dying High Street (they now account for a staggering 97% of all grocery sales). Interestingly, they could be part of the solution to get this connected consumer back to the beloved High Street through the ever growing ‘click and collect’ and only this week were promoting their offering at selected tube stations.

My first experience of filling out an order form and collecting a product from a counter dates back 30 years; a silver onyx ring for £10 as I remember... it was fashionable at the time! The store was of course Argos that is now looking to get to the forefront of the connected retail world.

Already partnering with eBay, enabling online shoppers the opportunity to ‘click and collect’ what was previously a delivery only option, and have just launched a digital-only store in Old Street. With four more planned, this could be the store of the future and although 90% of Argos transactions involve a store at some point, digital is increasingly key with a third of purchases bought online and collected in-store.

However, the brand that is consistently held up as an example of how to thrive in the connected world is Burberry - exemplary Fashion Shows that take place online, digital screens providing inspiration in-store, exclusive gigs, and a genuinely all round first class customer experience.

Their Regent Street store is a must see - all you can imagine from a richer and more engaging brand experience. There are other instances where outdoor media has even become part of the physical store - Take the Goertz outdoor campaign example; a brand that turned outdoor screens into a retail type space, with social sharing built into the experience via Facebook.  A QR code is generated linking users to the mobile commerce site with the shoe, size and colour – ready for purchase and next day home delivery.

Is all of this in response to the relatively new habit of showrooming, the practice of examining merchandise in a traditional brick and mortar retail store without purchasing it, but then shopping online to find a lower price for the same item? The tremendous surge in popularity of smartphones and mobile devices has substantially aided and abetted showrooming, since it gives shoppers much greater flexibility to check online prices and even place product orders online.

With all the above in mind, the future of retail seems to be the connection of store, online and mobile, the ‘bricks, clicks and touch’ model if you will, with the latter being treated in the same way as a physical store offering a near identical experience. Some have described the line between digital and physical as blurring; for those creating the future there should be no line at all. It could be that, like some independent retailers thriving through the online world, the physical store will strive to provide a showroom experience made profitable through their digital offering. With this model it’s about the consumer’s eventual purchase, not necessarily the moment itself.

The vision of personalised communication to the connected consumer is here; being welcomed when entering store, offering advice on products that complement previous purchases, store navigation and push coupon messages will all be done on the connected phone. It doesn’t have to be national retailers. Local High Streets could become connected zones with retailers providing coupons, advice and stimulus to consumers as soon as they set foot in the area.

It’s comforting to know that the High Street is by no means dead and at its heart is the consumer. For retailers who are embracing technology and who understand how consumers are now using digital in all aspects of their lives, the future of the High Street is filled with promise. New channels should not be viewed as threats, and retailers who emerge out of the changing landscape will do so through using a mix of the online and offline experiences– making shopping more convenient and easier, whether online, in-store or through mobile applications. Although the High Street will continue to change, it isn’t going anywhere and will continue to form the fabric of our society.

Chris Forrester is commercial director at Primesight

This article was first published on mediaweek.co.uk

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