The High Street’s Unexpected Saviour?

Media headlines routinely pronounce the death of the high street. Rising business rates, stagnant wages and competition from disruptive e-commerce firms have proved a toxic cocktail for bricks-and-mortar stores. Yet while traditional retailers strive to bolster their online offering, with some moving to an entirely digital model; many of the most successful online players, including Amazon, eBay and Google, are falling over themselves to set up shop in the offline world. 

Amazon is predicted to open 3,000 brick-and-mortar stores by 2021, reflecting Jeff Bezos’ recognition that 90% of US retail sales still happen in physical retail spaces. The 2017 acquisition of Whole Foods has advanced this calculated online/offline integration. In the UK, online brands such as Matchesfashion, Missguided and Farfetch are all following suit.

Surviving a high street apocalypse 

2017 study by Adyen found that 79% of shoppers leave stores due to long queues, and 50% want location-based discounts via mobile devices – expectations they have absorbed from online experiences. The list of virtual conveniences goes on including vast choice, easy navigation, access to comparisons and reviews, one-click purchases and AI-powered suggestions to name a few. 

Now more than ever, it is vital that traditional retailers change in order to keep up with the innovations that e-commerce players—businesses with disruption in their DNA—are bringing to the physical space. The survivors of the high street apocalypse will be those who can transform their stores to meet the demands of digitally native consumers accustomed to the convenience, choice and accessibility that e-commerce provides. 

Ikea’s app—designed to assist customers planning an in-store visit—is a good example. Users can plan a shopping list at home, check stock availability at their local store, tick off items as they collect them in-store and browse personalised offers.

At Amazon Go stores in the USA the ‘Just Walk Out’ technology replicates the convenience of a ‘one-click purchase’ button by allowing customers to simply leave stores with whatever they want to buy. Using a combination of overhead cameras and sensors, the store is able to detect what customers put in their virtual cart, and then charge their online Amazon account. 

From stockroom to showroom

Another benefit of a more seamlessly integrated online/offline strategy is the freedom this gives retailers to see their bricks-and-mortar stores less as stockrooms with check-outs, and more as showrooms.’s ‘slowrooms are an excellent example of this potential. Each store displays an edited range of Loaf’s best-selling pieces, arranged to evoke real living spaces complete with TVs playing retro films, pinball machines, and mini-fridges. Shoppers are encouraged to take fabric swatches home from workshop-styled walls, enhancing the interactive experience. Dotted around these inviting, tactile spaces are service screens that allow customers to shop and order from the full online range while in-store, cleverly combining the best of online and offline.

Practical steps

Of course, many of the technological innovations described above are not realistic for traditional retailers already struggling to pay rents, rates and staff. Yet simple changes such as in-store tablets that provide access to out-of-stock items, allow customers to read reviews, or make it possible to add products to online shopping baskets are an important first step. As the next generation grow up and become a key market for retailers, seamless online/offline integration will be vital to satisfy the expectations they have cultivated online.

Traditional retailers should not despair. They have two things online pure-players cannot replicate: tactile experience and social interaction. By embracing the paradox and learning from their online competitors how to optimise these offline advantages, the bricks-and-mortar store may well live to see another day. It might even have Amazon to thank.

Contributed By: Issy Rawlinson, Integer London

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