Empty shopping centres. Plummeting high street footfall. It is hard to imagine a worse time for retail. But is this really the case? Retail has reinvented itself in the past – more than once – and will do so again. Familiar retail names may continue to fail but, says Tom Downes CEO, Quail Digital, innovative, forward thinking companies are now grasping the opportunity to deliver the next wave of high street retail experience that truly reflects customers’ changing expectations.
While the High Street may appear to be a foundation of Britain’s unique shopping experience - and its death much lamented in recent years – the truth is that the retail industry is in a constant process of change and reinvention. In recent decades the retail offer has been influenced by the creation of shopping malls, the development of out of town locations and, of course, the evolution of online. Retail is in a constant state of change.
These changes always create both winners and losers – and look back at the lessons from history, and it is the visionary and the brave who succeed.
London’s Covent Garden has been a prime shopping destination for over 30 years, but its regeneration was not achieved by following the model employed in Oxford Street or even Bond Street. Instead, the owners proactively targeted very specific – typically small and unknown – retailers in a bid to create Covent Garden’s unique look and feel. This approach has been copied in smaller locations across the UK, including Catherine Hill in Frome which over a decade evolved from a near derelict and unrented location to a trendy street packed full of innovative independent retailers.
It was this recognition that something different was required and a willingness to look beyond short term returns, that inspired landlords, local authorities and, of course, retailers, to embrace a different form of retail model.
In the midst of the high street horror stories, a next cycle in retail success is now emerging: the desire for an interactive experience. Coffee shops are an obvious example of customers’ changing demands: with a state of the art coffee maker a standard piece of kitchen equipment, people are not heading to the high street in search of a cup of coffee. They want the interaction, the environment, the ambience.
It is this same need that is driving the recent upsurge in independent book stores. It is fuelling the sudden influx of shops selling artists’ equipment to the life drawing brigade. It explains the explosion in various ‘wellness’ locations, from beauty shops to health food/supplement providers. Who would ever have thought the much derided Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop brand would now include a store in London?
These retailers have recognised the desire to do more than shop. And it is not limited to innovative start-ups: Superdrug’s foray into smaller stores with nail bars and beauty salons is a perfect example of a company that understands the importance of adding activities and experiences to the store environment, both to win new customers and boost sales.
These retailers also recognise the importance of the quality of the interaction. Bookshops offer coffee (of course), as well as readings and book signings; but they also they invest in staff who love reading and are willing and able to discuss book choices with the customers – because that is a fundamental component of a great book buying experience. Similar thinking applies to art stores, as well as wellness destinations: a team of engaged, confident and committed staff who understand the product, the concept and the brand is at the heart of the successful new retail experience.
Critically, these individuals need to deliver a consistent brand message to continuously and systematically reinforce the quality of the customer experience. Building on solid communication skills, tools such as interactive headset systems tuned to a single channel can facilitate a strong team culture, with continuous and real-time communication enabling essential knowledge sharing between staff and helping to deliver an ever better customer experience.
If retailers are truly committed to the high street – and most confirm that online sales are boosted by a high street presence – it is essential to envisage the next wave of retail reinvention. It means reconsidering the in-store experience and recognising that the successful newcomers are offering something different, that they provide not only an interactive experience, but one delivered by engaged communicators working together in a team to fulfil customer expectations.
It is the combination of interactive experience and engaged shop assistant that increasingly defines the winners in the next cycle of retail rebranding.