In order to attract a new type of consumer back to high streets, Andrew Firth, head of insights and analytics at Ipsos MORI, argues, retailers need to gain a better understanding of shopper demands and motivations. 

National restrictions imposed on physical retail stores throughout 2020 and 2021 left consumers with no other choice than to pick up their phone, tablet or laptop and purchase goods online. In fact, KPMG analysis shows that UK online penetration increased from 16 per cent pre-COVID-19 to an expected median of 25 per cent in 2021.  

While this rate of online sales growth is expected to slow in the coming years it’s clear that the upward trajectory is here to stay, with experts recently predicting that approximately 50 stores are disappearing from our high streets each day.

The changing nature of the UK high street  

The pandemic accelerated the move towards online shopping - especially among younger generations. One study, published at the end of 2020, found that more than half of young adult shoppers - 30 per cent of Gen Z and 36 per cent of Millennials - planned to shop less in physical stores than they did pre-pandemic. 

Despite this, figures from the latest Ipsos Retail Traffic Index (RTI) paint a more positive picture for the high street’s recovery as we look ahead to 2022. While footfall remains below 2019 levels, Q3 saw an impressive rise of 10.7%, when compared with Q2, 2021.   

Innovative retailers are now looking to invest in their in-store experience, believing that improving consumer confidence will attract more shoppers back to high streets.

Humans want tangibility, as well as the benefits of online shopping

Humans want tangibility. The ability to see the size and feel the quality of a product is important and, crucially for bricks-and-mortar retailers, something that can’t be emulated online.  

Take online grocery shopping as an example. One study found that during the height of the pandemic, 59 per cent turned to online grocery shopping, up from 50 per cent in 2019. Despite this temporary jump, many buyers actually prefer to assess the quality of their food in-store, highlighting why retailers need to be investing in both online and in-store experiences.   

Loyalty schemes are proving incredibly successful for those looking to bolster their omni-channel offering. Consumers can set-up profiles that can be accessed both online and in-store, providing offers and discounts, while the ability to collect purchase history and customer preferences data can help improve customer experience across all channels. 

It’s common that shoppers will visit a store, assess the quality of a product and make the purchase - confident that it meets their requirements. Should they want to repeat their order in a week or a month’s time, online channels may prove more appealing.

Understanding convenience and the importance of sustainability 

Understanding the term ‘convenience’ also means understanding where consumers want to shop and why. More recently, we have seen examples of large retailers that would traditionally have been located at retail parks investing in smaller inner-city stores, with B&Q one retailer opening express stores, with others investing heavily in their digital-to-store experience.  

Convenience doesn’t just relate to the in-store experience, there are examples of pedestrianised town centres helping local towns boost footfall on their high streets, with a significant number of people happy to shop locally on a more regular basis. Increasing concerns about the environment and the importance of sustainability will also feed into the desire to shop local, and retailers in these locations must embrace this. 

The pedestrianisation of large city centres and the increase in people working from home may also mean that shoppers visit city centres less frequently, but for longer, choosing to enjoy leisure or hospitality venues alongside a trip to the shops. This will have a significant impact on how retailers use their physical stores in those high-streets and malls.

Putting experience front-and-centre 

Therefore, retailers must re-engineer stores in such a way that it gives shoppers a reason to return, otherwise they will suffer a permanent drop in footfall. 

Sephora, a popular make-up brand, sets the bar high when it comes to in-store experience and personalisation. Not only do they use cutting edge technology such as the ‘Sephora Color Match’, an augmented reality experience that helps consumers pick out the perfect shade of foundation.  

They have also merged their digital and physical teams to create a unified retail team. Now, if a customer browsed online and then bought in store, the team can see that. This has helped Sephora become more aligned and move faster across in-store, online, and mobile strategies.  

As we emerge from what has been an exceptionally challenging 18 months for retail businesses, the industry needs to consider the role of their stores and whether they are just a place to buy or a place to explore. Lines are blurring between online and digital, so developing an omnichannel approach will be key for forward-thinking retailers. In addition, understanding environment and sustainability concerns will becoming increasingly important for brands. 

Without accurate data around consumer demand, levels of footfall and what now motivates an individual to visit their local high street, shopping mall or retail park, retailers will struggle to adapt and risk losing customers to online alternatives. 

To find out more about Ipsos and the services they provide to the retail industry, click here.

This article was also published in The Retailer, our quarterly online magazine providing thought-leading insights from BRC experts and Associate Members.