Media reports over the last year or so have told terrifying tales of a retail industry in serious decline. According to an article in The Daily Telegraph at the end of last year, the phrase ‘high street gloom’ generated 698,000 Google results over the course of 2017, signalling that the days of brick-and-mortar dominance is under threat. And the rise of omnichannel shopping is deemed the catalyst, with online channels allowing consumers to peruse products from the comfort of their own homes before ordering items direct to their doorsteps.
However, all is not as it seems. If we study the hard-line facts, we can see that the number of shops closing fell to its lowest level in seven years at the end of 2017, with some sectors recording growth and many retailers actually opening new physical premises. Even Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer, moved into physical, yet checkout-less, stores in November 2017 in a bid to branch out from the ever-crowded online space and provide a seamless shopping experience. Although the environment may still appear uncertain, it is perhaps indicative that we are entering a period of relative stability when it comes to the high street.
This was evident on my trip to the National Retail Federation’s (NRF) 2018: Big Show in the USA, and from what I saw, the industry is nothing short of booming. Not only did the event itself break all previous attendance records, but activity on the stands of some of the world’s largest retail software suppliers was evidence enough that the retail industry is far from declining. Of course, the sector certainly doesn’t operate in the same way as it used to, but rather than slowing down, the high street is undergoing a period of transformation that will see it offer a better customer experience than ever before.
There’s no question that there will always be a proportion of the population that is committed to the convenience of online shopping and will rarely venture onto their local high street. This has been the case for at least the last 30 years, since the launch of the first mail order catalogue by Next back in the 1980s. However, there’s one critical difference between the omnichannel retailing of then and now – the presence of person at the end of the phone taking your order. And although it’s an old-fashioned concept, it’s true to say that people buy from people – human interaction is still hugely valued, particularly where an opinion or input is required.
However, while people continue to play a crucial role in the shopping experience, we are reaching a point where this role is changing and diversifying. With the rise of e-commerce, traditional retailers are under pressure to find ways of matching the benefits offered by the online marketplace, whilst upholding the advantages that make them more attractive than their web-based counterparts. People can only do so much, it takes additional resources to compete with the technical capabilities offered by the internet. And thankfully, there is now technology available to retailers that enables them to do just that.
The internet of things is the catalyst that is enabling bricks to match clicks. Stores are becoming connected and big data is being used intelligently to garner a better understanding of how people are shopping. In turn, this is enabling stores to improve their in-store experience – something that is vital to being successful in the modern day retail industry.
Retailers have long been collecting data from their customers, but the information harnessed from in-store sensors is delivering more actionable intelligence than ever before. The cloud is also opening up new possibilities to businesses. For bricks and mortar retailers, it’s helping them identify what products need be replenished, how many customers are currently in the store and which areas they are dwelling in the longest. But above all else it’s giving stores the power to sell more by avoiding out of stock scenarios (one of the key frustrations of high street shopping) and enabling staff to engage with customers. Ultimately, it’s supporting retailers in increasing their conversion rates, which is one of their key KPIs.
Retail is on the cusp of a revolution, yet human interaction is still hugely important and, with the advancement of intelligent retail solutions, bricks and mortar stores will only evolve as opposed to decline.