It only takes a brief stroll through any of Britain’s high streets to notice that there’s a problem: we’re increasingly being left with fewer shops and more vacant windows. The high street is in crisis. But before we put the blame exclusively on internet shopping, it’s important to understand that there’s a lot more at play – and in the end, technology might actually be the solution we need.
Internet shopping has made it possible to purchase products and services which may have once been out of reach, whilst also helping those with mobility issues to stock their cupboards without ever leaving the house. It’s also been on the receiving end of much backlash in recent years, as Britain’s high streets continue to decline in its wake.
But as with many industries, retail is undergoing a disruptive period of exciting new technologies coming to the fore – including machine learning, engaging experiences, and smart city solutions. So, could this technology change the fate of your local town centre?
Shopping in Crisis
To answer that question, we must first understand how this problem came to be. As commentators have noted, there are a number of factors which have affected how successful our high streets have been in recent years. These range from the 2008 financial crisis allegedly ‘killing’ the high street in 2011, to rising empty property rates making it difficult to rent shops out again – and yes, even the prevalence of internet shopping plays a role.
In smaller towns, away from the boom of the ‘smart city’, a reluctance to change can also play a major role. Some shops and pubs still operate without contactless payments, or in some uncommon cases, without card machines at all – instantly putting them at odds with the tech-savvy generations who don’t expect to pay with cash. This clearly puts a barrier between retailers and customers, and that barrier can ultimately affect the bottom line.
How Can Tech Break Down Barriers?
There are two distinct ways technology could help retailers: removing barriers between themselves and customers, and better collection and usage of data.
In the case of the former, we merely have to look at the rise of the smart city to understand the importance of creating an environment which brings together the offline and online worlds. I’ve previously written about the steps Manchester is taking to bridge this divide, but some of the onus must, naturally, fall on retailers.
Critics of internet shopping might be surprised to learn that it could be the key to a better retail experience overall. In reality, many fashion shoppers don’t exclusively choose between shopping online and visiting in-store – they often research online first, before trying on and purchasing clothes in person. As The Drum’s John Gillan pointed out on the subject, there’s an opportunity for retailers to bring the two together using machine learning and the Internet of Things. This would enable customers to ‘showroom’, where they can easily shop online for things they’ve seen in-store and have it shipped right away.
This omni-channel approach removes barriers and turns shopping into a fluid experience, where there’s no real differentiation between online and offline. For shops looking for footfall, however, the approach can also be re-shaped. Some online sites, for example, urge customers to collect in-store – creating an opportunity for increased footfall and further sales. Or, in the case of Amazon Go, users can make use of their online accounts in store, removing the need for tills and wiping out any sort of transition between the internet and offline. The opportunities are endless once a marriage between the two worlds has been agreed upon.
Meanwhile, retailers could use technology to collect, process and analyse data at a much more efficient rate in order to benefit themselves and their customers. Head into any trendy coffee shop in Manchester’s sprawling Northern Quarter, for example, and you’re likely to see a till operated by an iPad – it’s using tech called Vend to make sales more efficient and to capture data that can be used to make business decisions, such as identifying customer trends and the busiest times.
Kaleida has hands on experience on the data front, having build bespoke software for a number of retail clients. One such retailer was Sofology, furniture experts who have turned shopping into an experience. Behind the scenes, however, they were beset by clunky processes around securing interest-free credit for customers.
Of course, as time went on, sales slipped away. Kaleida devised a smart in-store interface between Sofology’s POS and their finance providers to make the data processing much faster and save those sales. The result was checking times halving and many happy customers.
In short, behind the scenes needs as much attention as front of house, and if retailers can embrace technology to allow this to happen, they can be better prepared to stand their ground on Britain’s high streets. As for consumers, they’ll have even more reasons to be happy, with brands working intelligently to provide them with what they want.
Will it Work?
The odds of technology single-handedly saving the British high street are, unfortunately, slim. As I mentioned earlier in this article, there are other significant factors to consider which, for the time being, are far removed from what technology can influence.
There’s hope, though. With retailers embracing the likes of the Internet of Things and omni-channel approaches to sales, Britain’s high streets do still have a fighting chance – but it’s up to retailers to continue adopting technology and using it wisely. And, of course, it doesn’t hurt to support local next time you need to run to the shops.
Kaleida are a bespoke software development house in Manchester. We provide retailers with custom-built software to help them achieve their goals and succeed in a competitive world. To find out more about our work in retail and other industries, feel free to browse our case studies. Or, if you have a question for us, don’t hesitate to get in touch.