The British high street’s refusal to innovate has put it in its death bed

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There will always be shopping, but some have got it so wrong

British newspapers have been awash, for years now, with epitaphs etched out for the latest victims of the high-street – companies which once had a presence in almost every suburb running into financial disaster and, ultimately, going bust. Why are we surprised? As the world creeps more and more onto the web, it should be no shock that certain commodities would shift from the high street showroom into warehouses and distribution networks where products can be ordered with just a few clicks, online.

A recent example is console gaming high street staple, Game. The big question is, without a major reshuffling of its retailing strategy, why had it not entered administration sooner? Some stores offer playable demos, but these are limited. For most new titles, the pre-launch buzz is available for months online. Gaming websites post reviews ahead of releases. Social media lets you gauge the opinions of just about everyone online. Except for the die-hards who feel like queuing at the stroke of midnight – who are otherwise rewarded by pre-ordered bonus editions anyway, sometimes at a discount. This leaves just the casual customer – perhaps a relative who is not clued up or don’t know what they want – asking for advice from assistants. This advice is available online anyway. PC gamers will be familiar with Steam, which exclusively digitally distributes while cutting out unpopular DRM.

Amazon’s Kindle has been copied by other book retailers, or e-tailers, to tap into what has been proven to be a lucrative market: e-books. This scribe thinks it’s unlikely e-books will ever edge real, physical copies out of the market. Even if the new book model moves increasingly towards electronic editions, the paperback never killed the hardback. No – a critical reason chain book stores began falling over in the West was because they offered little value over shopping online. When the information is at your fingertips, at home, and ordering, at a discount, is made so easy – whether it is an e-book or a physical copy – the store can only differentiate itself through physical interaction. That boils down to the strangely alluring smell of a new book, or judging a book by its cover. Sometimes, you can buy coffee. Of course, it’s likely there will always be a place for the quirky independent shop, if they can afford rising rents: but not so much for the profiteering would-be money makers.

There will most likely always be a place for a high street presence. At least, for certain products. People do like to engage with potential purchases, and some are high-risk when ordering online. A customer will be happy to order a pair of boots through ASOS or other fashion e-tailers, but splurging demands a little more scrutiny. Similarly, cheap and cheerful retailers – like Primark in the UK – will continue to attract buyers. Trying on clothes is essential for many shoppers.

An award-winning campaign in 2009 saw Dixons have a prophesy about the trend. (Retail Week) In it, a series of adverts on the tube highlighted the how pleasant it is to shop in London’s retail hubs – poking fun at the likes of Selfridges – getting help from shop assistants before finding the perfect product. Then you would go home and order it at Dixons.co.uk. What the marketers got right here was that people can enjoy the shopping experience for big spends, but ultimately they want value. Dixons’ campaign struck a chord. In the end, though, customers were more likely to head to e-tail powerhouse Amazon.

Amazon is the success story of online retailing. However, in some areas, it cannot deliver. As above, it is difficult to test certain products until they’ve already arrived on the doorstep, and although returns are pretty painless, that can be a hassle people don’t want to deal with in the working week.

Will we see the emergence of a new, hybrid model? Imagine a conference stand-esque demo showroom, where potential customers can get hands on with items they’re interested in buying before making an informed decision. Or side-by-side comparisons – a customer could measure two products or more, next to each other, in person, much like the advice consumers can get from phone retailers. Single brand vendors like Apple would hate it. But for an enormous network like Amazon it could be win-win, keeping prices low online and offering incentives to buy through a partner network program and loyalty schemes. eBay trailled the idea in London for Christmas 2011, though it was very much in its infancy. With the proliferation of smart devices and an ever more connected world, wouldn’t it make sense to bridge that gap between online and the high street?


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