The time is now for retailers to shape the future of the high street and secure consumer loyalty.

The decline of the high street is not news to anyone – empty units and the sudden departures of previously dependable household names have plagued the high street for years.  The pandemic accelerated the shift towards online purchasing and many said that consumers would never return to the offline world – but they are.

High street retailers and hospitality have a symbiotic relationship - this was never more apparent than during the early stages of the pandemic. Like retail, hospitality was hard hit by restrictions and changes in working practices.  However, as lockdowns lifted and groups were permitted to gather, the demand from returning punters to bars and restaurants was huge – as people strived for connectivity and community.  Retail is now seeing consumers return to old tricks, but with new habits.  According to the Centre Director at Manchester Arndale, David Allinson, Manchester’s Arndale Centre generally sees around 30% less footfall on weekdays , but that footfall is still generating more spend. Out of city retail parks are reporting mammoth sales on Sundays.  Specialist and luxury stores have welcomed more local customers, even though they have lost some tourist custom due to ongoing restrictions in various parts of the world.

Now, in 2022, old and new challenges remain. Brexit, the pandemic and the Ukraine war have culminated in global supply chain delays and raw material shortages for brands, while the cost of living crisis means that consumers are spending even more conscientiously.

So what does this all mean for retailers?  When footfall is down and costs are squeezed you need to focus on conversion.  This requires an honest review of the purpose behind your brand, the function of your store, its interaction with your online offering and the customer’s journey across both.

Stores will always be a touchpoint to create trust and brand loyalty.  They showcase inventory, help justify price-points and create assurances around quality and sizing.  Increasingly, brands are also using stores to reflect the personality or mission of the brand.  Lots of digitally native brands are opening offline offerings.  Gymshark, Allbirds and Axel Arigato have all made the transition in original ways – utilising pop-ups, experiential spaces and trying to actualise the ethos of their brands.

Brands have a particular opportunity to reinvigorate their business by integrating the online and offline experience alongside other core initiatives around sustainability, D&I and community responsibility.  So, how can this be achieved?

  • Consistent branding online and offline drives recognition and loyalty.  The trend towards “blanding” and the limitations of small screens means that many brands look quite similar – protect the look and feel of yours so that you can use it consistently and capitalise on new market launches.
  • Know where your stock is and how to get it to where it needs to be.  This often requires a re-think of your back-end IT systems – all of your solutions should talk to each other, provide real time updates and drive efficiencies rather than create extra processes.
  • Agile stock management also requires consistency in practical requirements – packaging, swing tags and how you present customer information need to be compliant with consumer laws and the new regulations on sustainability.
  • Leveraging aggregated customer data can help you predict emerging trends and help facilitate efficient inventory.  Tying this to your digital marketing strategy drives revenue and returning customers.
  • IRL experiences can help drive URL sales.  Experiential offerings are not new – but they need to be authentic rather than gimmicks.  Landlords are thinking differently about short term lets and alternative uses of spaces.  Collaborations and partnerships between complementary brands from entirely different sectors are common.  Use these initiatives to create experiential shopping that reflects who you are.
  • Convenience doesn’t necessarily equate to speed, or increased technology – it means less wasted time.  Flexible and integrated on and offline options for delivery, pick-up and returns reduce wasted time and ensure an inclusive process for all consumer types.  Instore staff need to be on-hand to help, and technology solutions need to be accessible for all demographics.
  • When the average return rate of purchases is around one in three, and consumers take around 10 days to return an order, decreasing those numbers can do wonders for your stock cycle.  Size recommendations based on past purchases, harnessing technological solutions that help customers more accurately select the right size for them, and fitting room appointments for in store pick-ups enhance the customer experience, drive further sales and shorten the time your stock is out of cycle – vital when upward supply chain lead times are at an all time high.
  • Not all changes need to be radical or revolutionary – look for and implement the small,  practical and sustainable changes too.  Educate your staff on your brand mission and voice.  Encourage conversations with consumers and participation in community initiatives that align with your values and what you want to achieve.
  • Co-operation is needed, and infrastructure and public services need to support the sector.  For example, road closures or reduced public transport services on Sundays are not helping anyone if this is the busiest shopping day in a particular locality.  Engage with local authorities to shape the new face of the community.

There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution here, and today’s consumer is very alert to something that feels inauthentic to what your brand is perceived to be.  Retailers are having to plan for the unpredictable, and react to a fundamental shift in attitudes towards consumerism.  Implementing these changes now will help ensure your shop front remains an agile presence on the high street for generations to come.

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