When darling of the high street Marks & Spencer announced plans to shut 100 core clothing and home branches as part of a major restructure, commentators were quick to jump on the news as just the latest death knell for the high street. Julian Fisher, CEO at Jisp, believes the doom and gloom of the high street is not as it seems.
Following hard on the heels of other big stories about high street casualties such as Maplin and preceding House of Fraser’s news that it is closing 31 stores, it’s easy to see why so many people have a gloomy outlook on the future of bricks and mortar shopping.
Most blame online shopping for the demise of some of the UK’s best-loved retail brands. After all, the UK has the highest percentage of online sales in the world and is this is predicted to grow to 18% this year. Only China comes close at 16.6% of total retail sales in 2018.
No-one can deny the huge impact that online retailers, such as Amazon, Alibaba, Ocado and ASOS have had on traditional brands. They can source a huge variety of product lines, sometimes at lower prices, and have invested in sophisticated supply chains to deliver them to customers within ever-shorter time frames.
But when even Amazon itself is rolling out physical stores, albeit on a modest scale for now, it’s clear that the high street shopping experience is not in its death throes, but in the midst of radical transformation. The retail brands that have been slow to anticipate and respond to changing forces in the sector are those facing problems today. Those who predicted change are in a much happier place.
Technology is at the heart of this change and is a driver as well as an enabler. It’s a driver because so many of us now, particularly those from younger generations, expect a completely joined up experience when shopping for new products.
Most of us carry around a smartphone that’s capable of searching for the best prices on a product, receiving relevant offers based on our browsing history, or even being shown personalised pricing based around a loyalty scheme.
We’re increasingly used to this happening online, but the chain of information is broken once shoppers move away from their home PC/mobile device onto the floor of a retail store. This disconnect will feel incredibly clunky in the very near future, especially when some brands find a way to truly bridge the gaps and create a better experience for their customers.
Technology is an enabler because it allows retailers to understand more about the products that shoppers want to buy and the price points that will encourage them to go ahead and make a purchase. Technology also improves the shopping experience: convenience is critical to customers, who don’t have time to hang around and have increasingly high expectations of retailers’ ability to fulfil their orders.
It’s important that retailers include their own store staff in any programme to digitise operations as part of their transformation. The empowerment of managers and assistants alike with technology that enables them to communicate with customers and encourage them to buy more products has to be key.
So just switching the mix from physical stores to online shopping isn’t necessarily going to help a retail brand like M&S recover. It’s a bit like moving out of the frying pan into the fire: competition on the high street is fierce, online it’s cutthroat.
This is all about using smart technology to understand more about what customers want to buy and when, then providing a personalised service to shoppers that ensures they feel happy with their in-store experience – and pleased with their ability to find a bargain.
The good news is that the management of M&S have now drawn a line in the sand and announced their intention to effectively build a new business. They have the vision, skills, drive and ability to fulfil their objective – and let’s face it, we would all be a little bit worse off without M&S on our high streets.
It is to be hoped that others will learn from the steps that its management team take in the near future to recalibrate product lines, supply chains, the in-store experience and the real integration of online and offline.