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Digitising our vanishing high streets, by Jamie Matthews, CEO of Initials

by on October 25, 2018 in Latest News, Lead Article, News you can use, Nuggets, Retail, Social Media

In this piece Jamie Matthews, CEO of independent creative agency Initials, looks at the power of digital to both destroy and save Britain’s vanishing high streets.

Despite the seemingly constant ‘death of the high street’ headlines, it’s where you live that determines how you feel Britain’s high streets are really doing. There are comparatively affluent neighbourhoods up and down the country that remain home to vibrant retail areas. But, there are also no shortage of places where the retail picture is undoubtedly darkening.

The number of places like this are increasing, and if you live in one of them, the local high street serves as an up-close-and-personal daily reminder of the challenges retailers are facing.

Retail expert Bill Grimsey recently launched The Grimsey Review, his second report into Britain’s vanishing high streets. Positive, practical and peppered with plenty of real-life examples we can all learn from, it outlines the different steps Britain’s high streets are taking in an attempt to reverse their fortunes.

There is no shortage of analysis into what’s gone wrong and why, providing the sort of actionable insights we should be focusing on now.

The role of digital in the decline of our high streets is well understood, but its capacity to help rejuvenate them is only starting to be explored. The power of digitally-led instore experiences to lure consumers back into bricks-and-mortar stores seems certain, how long it will take innovation like that to happen is far less clear. It’s easy to see how those developments are having a big impact in places like Westfield, but if you’re a regional high street in a less than affluent area, it’s hard to imagine anything similar coming into play in the next five years. By the time that tech can be deployed on that scale, it’s likely to be too late for some.

A map for still-vibrant high streets.

All this, like so much in life, comes down to money. It’s money that gives towns the ability to change. Those with money are able to innovate and adapt, those without it can’t. Demographics dictates this. High streets where the locals have money to spend will automatically have a higher index of coffee shops and restaurants and more innovative store concepts.

It’s retail risks – totally non-traditional offerings– that create reasons for consumers to get up off the sofa and go shopping. The Sunday Times Best Places to Live guide could be used as a map for still-vibrant high streets.

Countless examples of high street revivals

We are in a unique position in this country. British retail has always led the world in innovation.

The downside of that is we are experiencing the negative effects of modern shopping habit changes more quickly and deeply than is being seen in other developed markets around the world.

The upside is we’ll come out of this curve sooner and be on to redefining what high streets look like. The markets that aren’t yet experiencing this downturn are ones where online and offline purchasing are less advanced. In five to ten years, there will be countless examples of high street revivals. These will be in the towns that have had the opportunity to redefine themselves by bringing in the digital solutions Grimsey outlines in his report.

Consumers tend to embrace technology in their homes before they are willing to engage with it elsewhere. For this reason, it’s likely we’ll need to see the general public adopting certain types of tech at home before they become confident enough to embrace it in a retail environment. For example, futurologists talk about playrooms in people’s homes becoming VR rooms, full of gadgets and toys that allow you to immerse yourself in another world. The tech might be ready, but consumers and retailers aren’t there yet.

Digital innovation

Until you start to see things like that in people’s homes, you won’t see it on the high street. Imagining the roll out of digital innovation will work that way is viewing everything back-to-front. Voice is a great example. Siri has been around for a long time, but it made people feel silly. Now Amazon has placed virtual assistance firmly in homes voice has exploded. It was never going to take off in mobile before it took off in people’s homes. Without the former you never reach the latter.

Big brands have a massive opportunity right now to play a crucial role in redefining British high streets. They are all embracing real-world digital experiences, particularly those whose products fall into the considered purchase category. With Amazon pushing their businesses towards a one supply chain channel model, they are keen to redefine this balance of power; they want (and need) to re-establish direct relationships with their consumers.

The eventual solution

Bill Grimsey

Brands need to be brave, and ensure their presence is one that re-defines the concept of high street offerings. As a result, we should see more big brands opening up on the high street, experimenting, bringing traditional showrooms back to life.

In that sense, while the rise of Amazon might be the cause of so many problems we’re seeing, conversely the eventual push back against it will likely contribute to the eventual solution. Yet another way digital might end up saving, rather than killing off, the great British high street.

Our high streets are undoubtedly in trouble, and digital must shoulder a large portion of the responsibility for this. But all is not lost.

A positive outlook and innovative approaches, including utilising digital advances in the right way, can turn things around. Bricks-and-motor retail has a future, just not one we’d immediately recognise.

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