UK Retail…it’s not just for Christmas!

Published: 20 December 2013

With the news that Britain has embraced internet shopping more than any other major country in the world, one could be forgiven for believing that the High Street is dead.

Personally I am doing my bit to keep my local shops in business and apparently so are you as the BRC-KPMG Retail Sales Monitor figures from last week reveal that UK retail sales were up 0.6% on a like-for-like basis from November 2012, when they had increased 0.4% on the preceding year.

All this despite the “dodgy discounts” revelations by Which magazine and Channel 4’s Dispatches about retailers including Tesco and TK Maxx.  One wonders why people still trust the bricks and mortar retailers?  
Battling my way down Oxford Street today and Cheltenham Promenade last weekend, it seems that pavements and shopping centres are as busy as ever.  So despite the hyped online shopping figures and media suggestions, what is driving us in equal measure to laptops, iPads and local retail hubs?

I believe that one of the reasons we still love real bricks and mortar is that sense of discovery and desire to find something unique, quirky or a bargain – real or perceived. While trust in retail isn’t as battered as our trust in banks, the human desire to physically shop is driven by our desire to use our five senses when making a gift selection; you can’t do this online as yet.

The online vs real world experience does need to change, our behaviours have evolved and we complement convenience with a desire for a positive experience – the phrase ‘retail therapy’ isn’t going away, just as Kindle isn’t replacing books and Spotify isn’t replacing going to a gig. Retail is in transition, the independents on the High Street are getting their act together online, many (not enough) of the multiples are recognising the shift in consumer behaviour – now accelerating because of tablet computer uptake. 

Tablets may drive shopping at home, but the real opportunity is embracing smartphone usage in-store, because mobile plays an incredible role in the decision making process. “Showrooming” (using a mobile to compare prices, check reviews and product details when in store) is growing in popularity and although not yet a significant threat to revenues, it should be top at the top of the mind when designing the next generation store experience, and aligning on and off-line product lines and pricing.

Clearly the retail dynamic is pulling in different directions, further complicated by the undercurrent of revolt against the homogenisation and the search for personal, knowledgeable service, and the social responsibility of brands manufacturing in third world countries. Food retailing is experiencing this – a shift from supermarket to farmers market. It’s not enough to say “trust us”, shoppers want evidence that their purchase doesn’t sustain a sweatshop.

The challenge is simply the nature of stores on our high streets; ethical supply lines, and staff who are paid to serve, not serve to survive on commission-based earnings. Shoppers want to browse, pick up, put back, ask questions, get answers, compare, contrast but have the convenience of click and collect or reserve and return. We want to feel valued again; we want simplicity, convenience, not to feel like a pack horse under the weight of oversized shopping bags. 

Some of the early indications from the high street support this suggestion with larger multiples with strong e-commerce offers leading the way. They’re learning from the boutique High Street stores where customers still love a more personal shopping experience.  It’s this we crave after ten years of online. Whether you’re physically on a High Street, or browsing online, the experience and offer should be the same.

Tamsin Terry-Lush is a Principal Consultant in the Retail Practice at Berwick Partners

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