Bigger, better, faster and now cheaper – what’s really happening on the high street.

 
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It seems you can’t help but read how the high street is declining, shops are closing branches or going bust. Our high streets and shopping centres are in peril. So, is this the end of the traditional shop as we know it? Hardly.

Few will remember the changes that came to retail in the days when shoppers were served by an assistant behind a counter. The consumer was not permitted free access to products and was absolutely not expected to pick them out for themselves… heaven forbid. Think of the Two Ronnies sketch ‘Fork handles’ (four candles). The haberdasher whose wares were in draws stacked from ground to ceiling had to use a ladder, even though Corbet was short some products were stored several metres up. With requests from the hapless dim-witted shopper, played by Barker, the shopkeeper would regularly complete a decent circuit fetching items.

Space came at a premium which is why buildings tended to be taller… up was cheaper than across! Many of today’s luxury end gastronomic shops reflect the old ways, counters displaying the products you can’t touch served by staff who know every inch of their products.

Interestingly and perhaps obviously it was the food industry that experienced the greatest change, at the time. A revolution in shopping with grocery stores placing products on shelves where shoppers could pick them out for themselves before shuffling over to a counter to pay - extraordinary! For the UK this was in the early 1950’s and it caused quite a stir. Self-service was not a widely appreciated concept not least for having been invented in the United States where another revolution increased shopper spend - the cavernous trolley. These developments were loved and loathed and had commentators decry their certainty – ‘...it wouldn’t last’.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Stores were now bigger, better stocked, shopping was faster and with savings achieved from how goods were retailed they eventually became cheaper. These changes weren’t so much about lowering prices, it was about convenience and naturally it caught on. An industry was born, and it flourished. And yet it took decades for other areas of retail to change, to adapt to the new ways of self-service driven by our insatiable need to introduce new methods, improve everything and ultimately to make things easier.

For some, ‘new’ is simply another word for modern. As we become quickly comfortable in the ways we shop the spur to modernise heralds change which can be uncomfortable simply because of its unfamiliarity. Have we not all at one time or another said, ‘Why have changed this, it was good as it was’ - harrumph!  

So why, even if slowly, do we see changes in the retail landscape? Is technology to blame? Are we incapable of resting, for just one moment?

The drive comes from our desire to improve how we live and the cost we are prepared to pay which is especially acute when competition delivers value. Sounds a bit obvious but this force for change is fed by the very people who are NOT unfamiliar with change. I am of course speaking of the young. Children, teenagers and young adults. Why does a child have no problem instantly understanding how to use a tablet computer? Why do we turn to our kids to unravel the mysteries of the TV remote? Simple, almost everything handled by young people is going to be new and, in some cases, modern. And since I’ve already stated the bleeding obvious let’s add another… there’s a healthy supply of new ‘young people’ coming through every day and since they aren’t as unfamiliar as the rest of us they like what ‘we see’ as change. In fact they demand change, they want, bigger, better, faster. And with unheralded access to information they looked for and found cheaper.   

Delivering improvements to convenience has typically been standard of innovation for retail. From shops we saw the rise in mail order with catalogues to peruse in the comfort of our own home. It could therefore be argued that this was the first and significant other retail ‘channel’. With the onset of the world wide web the next channel emerged, and ecommerce was born. Now we had multiple retail channels and a little over two decades later we saw the birth of apps which was more than just websites optimised for mobile.         

The most significant aspect of these huge advances in technology and communication was in how we became empowered with information whenever and wherever we were. This gave us the ability to make informed decisions. Yet again, we can see a common force at work, the drive for convenience – from the desktop fixed to the table, to laptops I can take with me, to iPads and tablets I can hold and mobiles that fit in my pocket. And everything to view anywhere when I’m good and ready.

The rise of omnichannel...

Whether visiting a store’s website, their app or walking into the shop there’s a facility, a channel, to go shopping. The only problem is that these channels aren’t talking to each other, sharing information. This gave rise to omnichannel and the pursuit of integrating all areas to speak as if one entity. Adding complication however was the need to include social channels, not owned by stores, but which are used by brands to publish messages. Very quickly consumers were being presented lots of choice but no single voice. Think of when you’ve spent an age explaining something to a call centre representative only to be passed to someone else and having to start over, now imagine having to do this at least three times.

Between two digital landscapes, website and app, you might be forgiven to think that sharing information inherently possible. And yet our experiences as consumers suggest otherwise. To put it simply the left hand has no idea what the right hand is doing. Add a shopper’s visit to a bricks and mortar store and the inability to link information is complete. It is the reason why, for this author at least, omnichannel has failed for the modern shopper. Retail might be able to sell the same products and hope to communicate the same message but with no record of what shoppers specifically looked at across their channels, how consumers reacted, what was selected and in which order the only and undeniable data they are left possessing is what was purchased. Today this is simply not good enough for the shopper who expects to be greeted knowingly as once we were in the old days of retail, ‘Hello Mr Fisher so nice to see you again. Something special to go with the jacket you bought last week?’ 

Shoppers want to be treated as individuals not targets. And since most will have grown up armed to the teeth with information they’ve become extremely savvy so why would anyone expect to sell products that are known to be more expensive? As retailers we are also consumers so test this out for yourself… place two identical products on a shelf, label one £20 and the other £30. Which one would you buy?     

Retail needs to be clever to be personal, but without being intrusive. It is and will be a challenge, but retail will evolve. The next logical step is to unify the channels in every respect - messages, prices, the complete offering. We are already witnessing a painful transition but it has no choice – the new young are coming and we don’t yet know what are their demands..!

Julian Fisher, CEO jisp