What’s next for Britain’s high streets?
Several months of closed stores and nationwide lockdown may prove to be just what the high street needed, writes Spark Foundry's Emma Svensson
The high street and its function as a central gathering point for towns and cities has long been ingrained into the UK’s cultural identity. Despite this, the well-publicised struggles of the high street continue – the product of changing consumer habits, first through out-of-town shopping parks, and then the internet.
The impact of COVID-19 will likely further exacerbate many of the underlying problems, but amid the gloomy statistics and headlines, there is also plenty of potential.
Whilst the proportion of online spending has increased threefold between 2008 and 2018 from 4.9% to 17.9%, with COVID accelerating this even further, just over 80p of every pound is still spent in store.
Several months of closed stores and Britons spending more time than ever at home also looks to be reframing our priorities – like the saying goes, you don’t miss it until it’s gone. Spend at specialist food and drink stores grew by 30.5% in March, with consumers shopping local as a result of the lockdown. Over half of consumers surveyed by Barclaycard suggested they want to increase support of nearby businesses, and are planning on doing so by spending locally in the future.
Combined with concern about climate change at an all-time high and shopping habits changing ahead of the pandemic – 43% of consumers were already actively choosing brands due to their environmental values – the forced pause on our day-to-day lives may be the perfect time to stop and take stock of our consumption habits.
This shift could bring consumers back to the high street, aided by loyalty schemes and cashback apps that reward users for shopping locally and sustainably.
Pre-pandemic, high street store openings in the retail sector increased by 4.1% year on year. Charity shops were opening rapidly, helped along by favourable business rates and lower costs to store-fit. The vast majority of consumers who hadn’t shopped online in the last twelve months did so because they preferred to shop in store. Proof that the human touch still matters.
Reflected by the trend of niche or premium brands opening stores, where the in-store customer experience plays a vital role, a growing number of consumers are placing increased importance on bricks-and-mortar shopping. However, with bricks-and-mortar retailers already at a comparative disadvantage to online pure-players – they account for 94% of all business rates but only have 80% of all retail sales – it’s clear that retailers must focus more on the aspects that online-only stores don’t have.
Tech, for example, can be used to improve the in-store shopping experience. The PUMA flagship store in New York has been transformed into an experiential destination: shoppers can use QR codes both to find the in-store products online, and to trigger certain AR features such as ‘trying on’ products virtually. Complemented by tech-enhanced activities such as video games, a ‘skill cube’, and AR enabled mirrors, the brand re-envisioned its store into a unique experience that can’t be replicated online.
Indeed, experiential shopping has been on the rise, with big-name department stores such as Selfridges and Harrods also working to add bespoke experiences – such as Harrods’ dedicated Beauty Events & Services space, where they offer masterclasses, consultations, and treatments – to draw customers back into their stores.
These changes come with the additional upside of more insights and data-points around consumer behaviour, perfect for improving the customer journey, be it in-store, via a website or through marketing.
Obtaining a consented and accurate single customer view has long been an ambition for retail brands: advancements in technology are making this an increasing reality. This provides the opportunity to both connect customer data for targeting via digital media, as well as tracking outcomes across in-store and online touchpoints to demonstrate ROI, integral in driving improved business outcomes.
The pandemic and subsequent lockdown, though likely devastating to many high street businesses, might also prove to be the catalyst for a revival.
Emma Svensson is performance manager at Spark Foundry