How Bricks and Mortar Businesses Can Stay Competitive in the Age of E-Commerce

In the retail industry as well as in the mainstream news, what’s dominated the headlines for at least the last ten years is the so-called death of the British high street.

How Bricks and Mortar Businesses Can Stay Competitive in the Age of E-Commerce

In the retail industry as well as in the mainstream news, what’s dominated the headlines for at least the last ten years is the so-called death of the British high street.

Combined with several factors including recession and prolonged austerity measures, as well as the rise of internet shopping and increased business rates, the effect has been a depleted high street, with empty units and perpetual liquidation sales plaguing the nation. In reality, the UK retail industry is still booming – just in a slightly different way. In 2018, UK retail sales were worth £381 billion, with 2.9 million people employed in retail across the country. And whilst there was a 4% growth in retail sales, online sales grew by 18%.

Yet through it all, bricks and mortar shops can deliver on factors that online shops can’t. Consumers love the customer service, expert opinion and shopping experience of a face to face interaction – allowing businesses to add value through product advice, customer loyalty schemes and even social media influence. Online shopping isn’t without its frustrations, with bad websites being one of the reasons why shoppers might abandon their carts. 77% of people say that they would abandon their basket at checkout if the shipping and other fees were too high, and 47% of people said that they would abandon their shopping if their promotion code wasn’t working – showing that online at least, the consumer is always motivated by price.

An evolution in how we shop

According to GlobalData, retailers are increasingly shifting towards digital. As high street giants like House of Fraser, Marks & Spencer and Debenhams close shops to protect their interests, town centres around the country are left with empty units. Shoppers are becoming tech-savvy and time-poor, and online shopping offers something that bricks and mortar shops can’t – twenty four hour convenience.

Now, many retailers will focus on online expansion rather than store expansion. This has resulted in the loss of 85,000 jobs in the past year due to weak customer demand, rising costs and the online shopping switch.

The experience of the high street

High streets were once truly the town’s centre – a social hub and the centre
of the community
. Today, the limitations of the small-town high street are clear. Where once people of any age were able to go to their town centre to browse and shop, now, people travel to their nearest city or out of town shopping centre. In the future, the high street will have to become a destination in order to survive – worth a visit for the latest event, market or festival that’s happening at the weekend.

Since last year, 85,000
jobs have vanished from the high street
, and between 2017 and 2018, there were around 3
million fewer shoppers
than the previous year. Many small-town high streets flaunt only vape shops, betting shops and charity shops after large retailers have cut branches all over the country.

Change has always been driven by economic, social and technological trends, and the retail industry is no different. Whilst global retail dominance by brands such as Amazon may have always been on the cards, what can really make a lasting difference to the lives of shoppers is the experiences and memories that can be created on the high street.

Creating memorable in-store experiences

The retail industry is undergoing a transformation and retailers must work harder to entice consumers into purchasing. Recent refits see shops with beauty salons, coffee shops and bars inside. These, known as concept stores, offer a carefully selected mix of fashion and lifestyle products in ‘Instagrammable’ spaces. These shops are totally committed to memorable customer experience: running workshops and other events to extend the shop beyond its traditional boundaries and working hours.

For Easy Bathrooms, a company with 40 showrooms across the UK, their online presence and their stores work hand in hand to ensure customer satisfaction on every level. Lee Reed, Product and Marketing Manager, says that although their website sales represent a small proportion of their overall turnover, it’s a crucial tool in bringing footfall to their stores. “Each showroom has its own page on the website, and it’s our aim for the showrooms to organically rank number one in their catchment area.” Easy Bathrooms’ biggest differentiator is their showrooms. Customers like to visualise what they’re going to buy, and the customer service in the stores helps to sustain this, with staff members trained to use their specialised 3D bathroom design software.

“For us, the best ways to create memorable customer experiences are through a combination of three things: customer service, the quality of displays and the added value you can provide.”

The importance of online presence

It’s now estimated that 53%
of all purchase decisions are digitally influenced
, so it pays to be connected. Shops can employ influencers or, for those on a smaller budget, micro-influencers, to promote specific products. This new method of advertising works particularly well for concept stores that promote their wares as a lifestyle, as products can easily be shown in situ, working well for the people who use them daily.

Businesses have always been interested in the science behind purchase choice. Now shopkeepers can gain valuable insights into consumer purchase journeys using Google Analytics or other similar technologies, helping them to convert more customers both online and instore.

“Social media and the internet are vital components in growing our business,” says Lee Reed from Easy Bathrooms. “We run PPC (pay per click) ad campaigns on Google to support web traffic, which further drives instore sales. These campaigns can target our ideal customer, helping to grow a loyal following of people who will recommend us or return to us for their next bathroom renovation.”

Expert advice delivered with great customer service

Colleagues that are well trained to know the products that they sell are immediately more passionate and informative to customers. In specialist shops, customers will rely upon staff members to intuit when to approach them, assess their needs, and recommend an outcome. Through encouraging staff members with away days, product launches, sales incentives and staff discounts, they’ll enjoy delivering personalised customer service.

Retailers shouldn’t get bogged down by offering customers a wide range of product choice, either. Embracing the differences between online shops and bricks and mortar stores is important. Consumers visit specialist retailers for their curated choice of items, as well as the personal advice that they can offer. As the UK retail market evolves, e-commerce businesses thrive because they make the act of buying easier, and bricks and mortar shops succeed because they make the act of shopping more enjoyable.

David Starks
David Starks

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