• Guest Blog, Leon Edwards: Is this the last Christmas before online takes over?

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    It would have been hard to miss a retail story in the pages of last January’s news outlets. It’s not difficult to foresee the same for this New Year given the next eight weeks will be critical to many UK retailers. We’ve just seen Black Friday come and go, and the countdown to Christmas has just begun. If you read market analysts’ comments, their respective prediction is an 11 per cent growth on last year for both events an important statistic in itself when considering the beleaguered high street and its various woes; watch out the retailer that gets Christmas wrong.

    Of greater importance to our brick and mortar stores is the continued rise of online sale. Black Friday, the sometimes maniacal, always bargained ladened US-style event, takes internet shopping to new heights. In 2015, estimates suggest £3-4 billion in retail sales over the period with as much as one third being spent online.

    A similar trend can be seen throughout the whole Christmas shopping period, admittedly with a lower cyber-shopping focus. This has led to Christmas footfall reducing year-on-year – meaning fewer people in the shops. In fact, data suggests that the only increase we’ve seen in shoppers visiting physical stores is to pick up their ‘click and collect’ items.

    If things continue, it won’t be long before the majority of our festive bargains are snatched up online. What will this mean for the high street and for retailers in general?

    There’s a strong economic argument to eCommerce: no expensive property to fill and maintain leading to better margins, broader ranges and better availability. But, with the transparency that the internet brings, surely it’s just a race to the bottom where the lowest price and quickest delivery wins.

    With stores you get interaction, entertainment and people. Not that people always help: a recent study we conducted found that of the 2,008 UK-based consumers polled, 68 per cent were put off by store staff ‘actively selling’ to them. Perhaps not a surprise when 89 per cent of 968 sales assistants we spoke to said they did not enjoy the experience at all.

    It’s likely that this type of consumer sentiment isn’t helping in the battle against online, and if the trend continues, shops have much work to do to survive, let alone thrive.

    I don’t think anyone is predicting the complete demise of the retail store just yet. They point at Amazon’s retail stores as a beacon of hope. But, the retail environment will change as a result of our changing shopping habits – it has to.

    We are starting to see that transition already with augmented reality (AR) shopping experiences, multi-store layouts and ‘social’ retailing where a coffee and sit down might replace a pushy assistant.

    There are many occasions that I walk back out of a shop empty handed even though I need the product(s) I’m shopping for. More help with wayfinding, product selection and speed of transaction is required. After all, part of the internet’s joy is the ease of finding and purchasing products.

    Perhaps it’s time to borrow something, other than Black Friday, from our American cousins; the art of traditional retailing where the customer experience is all that matters.

     

    Leon Edwards is the managing director of www.Displaymode.co.uk, a UK point of purchase company. It is a privately owned business that employs 55 people at its design and manufacturing facility in Northamptonshire. With an enviable client list from the retail and consumer goods world, they have exported to 34 countries since the Brexit vote.

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    Jack Wynn

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