Thursday, 21st February 2019

Will retailers wake up before it’s too late?

The domino-style closures of high street stores are continuing at pace with more than 1,170 stores closed or earmarked for closure since January. Over the summer months alone the headlines have been filled with news of the ‘failing’ high street, with House of Fraser entering administration and Homebase announcing around 60 stores closures and the loss of up to 2,000 jobs. Despite the summer months traditionally being a particularly difficult time for retailers, this summer has perhaps been harsher than most with the lowest August high street sales figures for three years. By Julian Fisher, CEO, jisp.

With the Christmas season looming, retailers will now be drawing a line under these summer disappointments and turning their attention to the crucial trading period of Q4 to make up a large proportion of their revenue. However, to succeed during this time and make it through the other side into 2019, retailers must wake up and change their ways. Historically, retailers have been slow to adapt to change compared to their online counterparts; investing in costly retail system upgrades can take months or even years to implement, with the technology already out-of-date by the time installation is complete. Bricks-and-mortar stores, therefore, must be more inventive and adopt personalisation, exploit what makes them different and embrace the shopping experience. With online brands such as Amazon moving from strength to strength, UK high street retailers must begin to take these risks to keep in tune with changing consumer behaviours.

While looking at how retailers can prevent closures improve their performances, it is important to address the causes of these store closures. Many high street store closures can be attributed to retailers carrying the burden of large debts and loans for which they are unable to meet repayments. Increasingly, we are seeing retailers selling stores or retail space for a quick cash-flow injection and then renting the premises back off the new owner. Another common response to falling numbers is to cut staff. While these responses may solve cash-flow issues in the short-term, they aren’t long-term solutions and don’t get to the root of the retailer’s problems. Retailers must find more effective ways to cut costs, or more importantly boost their revenue addressing issues such as pricing, which products they should stock and how to make their stores a haven for shoppers. The current approach of many retailers is failing them, as reflected in the string of recent store closures, as such, retailers must look at alternative methods to entice consumers back onto the high street and into their stores.

Celebrating the differences of high street stores

Although it has generally been the consensus that online retailers have the upper-hand thanks to the removal of pain points such as queuing or offering substantial discounts, there are several benefits of having a bricks-and-mortar store that retailers are overlooking. Firstly, high street retailers have the opportunity to achieve more than online retailers as once customers are in the store there is the possibility of tempting them with other items on display and upselling. Additionally, in physical stores, retailers can create an atmosphere and play to the customer’s senses as, unlike with online shopping, consumers can touch and smell items and look at them from every angle. This ability to touch and try on items should not be overlooked as it can be a real driving force to make a purchase, whereas online shoppers have to use an element of imagination which can often deter them from making that risky purchase.

In-store shopping experiences also allow consumers to share instant reviews with other shoppers, giving them the opportunity to gain different opinions and find alternative options. Instead of assuming that they are at a disadvantage compared to online retailers, high street retailers should celebrate their differences and the experiences they can offer that are unique to bricks-and-mortar stores. Retailers must sell the ‘experience’ of high street shopping in a bid to entice consumers back into their stores.

Addressing consumer needs

Tying into the idea of the shopping ‘experience’, high street stores must address what customers want when they walk into a store and answer this need, rather than running their business to beat competitors who may be attempting to sell products at unprofitable prices. If stores can provide customers with the perfect mix of the right environment, the right products in the right sizes, friendly and knowledgeable staff and decent amenities, such as changing rooms, it could be argued that price will become more of a secondary issue. That is to say, as long as the price is fair the consumer will be happy due to the convenience provided by the other elements of the experience. This convenience combined with paying a fair price for a product is likely to deter the customer from going elsewhere in order to undercut the price slightly.

Fair pricing is one of the most important issues for customers. Retailers should keep this in mind and provide consumers with fair pricing, discounts and loyalty schemes. In doing so, retailers have the potential to win customers round and gain repeat custom as these ‘rewards’ for shopping at a store can leave the customer with a lasting feel-good factor. For example, if a customer comes away from a store feeling as if they have achieved something, i.e. getting a good deal on a product, this is likely to foster customer loyalty and inspire repeated trips to the store.

Making stores destinations

Adopting new technology and using existing technology more thoughtfully is one of the main ways in which retailers can arm themselves against closures. For example, busy stores with long queues is one of the biggest turn offs of visiting the high street, and retailers should find ways to avoid this. Retailers could consider implementing technology which steers customers away from the traditional point of sale and allows them to take payment for items at any point within the store, for instance. This not only adds to the convenience of in-store shopping but could also allow more interaction with customer and free up more space within the store.

This leads into the need for retailers to make stores more inviting. By implementing technology which allows customers to pay at various points, there is the potential to free up more space which can be used for consultations and demonstrations. Alternatively, it could be used to create larger changing rooms or act as a dedicated space for new product ranges. The possibilities for this space are endless but are all able to make the high street shopping trip a more pleasant experience. In short, retailers must make their stores a destination – a place consumers enjoy going to, rather than a place they want to get in and out of as quickly as possible.

Even with this approach, it is an unfortunate truth that the vast majority of retailers carrying huge debts will be unlikely to survive in the current market. For the remainder, to succeed in the current market, they must firstly avoid taking short-term actions to increase cash-flow and instead get to the root of their problems. This will allow them to develop strategies to tackle the issues head-on, such as stocking new product ranges or increasing products in certain sizes.

By using technology and insights into the customer’s needs, retailers have a chance to carve out a niche for themselves in a highly competitive market and make their stores a destination for a unique shopping experience. High street retailers must also get out of the mindset that they can’t compete with online retailers and instead use these differences to their advantage. Ultimately, the high street of the future will be a place where fortune favours the brave and as such, retailers must make definitive and bold action to get ahead.

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