In November 2008, high street giant Woolworths announced that they had fallen intoadministrationdue to debts totalling £385 million. What followed was the mass closure of all 807 of its stores across the UK and the loss of 27,000 jobs nationwide.
At the time, it was almost inconceivable to see a staple of the UK high street simply disappear completely. 10 years on, it almost seems common place. The UK high street has changed dramatically in the last decade as more and more household names and brands disappear, with many high streets left with boarded-up shopfronts and empty retail spaces.
This year alone has seen the closure of all Toys “R” Us stores globally, as well as all Maplin Electronics outlets across the UK. Debenhams, House of Fraser, Marks & Spencer, Mothercare, and New Look have each announced store closures up and down the country, and Poundworld has fallen into administration with a currently-uncertain future.
Though high street retailers are going through a period of decline, online retail services continue to rise. Last year, Amazon.com, Inc. generated a total profit of $3.03 billion, an increase of 27.8% from their 2016 profit of $2.37 billion. What once started life as a simple online bookshop has now become the largest internet retailer in the world.
There’s no denying that online shopping and technological advances have had an impact on the high street, but it isn’t just the savings or the convenience however; online retailers have the benefit of lower running costs and overheads compared to a high street store based in a prime location. Increasing expenses have played a factor in many store closures across UK high streets and a key reason why online services continue to be a more favourable option. In recent years, high street travel agents have decreased in great numbers in favour of online services, such as Thomas Cook, who closed 28 of their stores across the UK last year.
Though the sight of boarded-up shops in a once-bustling high street is a bleak image, it is not all doom and gloom for the high street businesses. Travel agents and department stores may have had their day, but high streets have seen a dramatic rise in charity shops and discount stores, as well as coffee houses, such as Starbucks and Costa. There has been huge increase in coffee house culture across British high streets, with an estimated 23,000 outlets across the UK, and three new coffee shops opening every day.
As consumer habits change and trends emerge, retailers have to adapt to these.
Amazon have become the largest online retailer, but this was not achieved by simply remaining an online bookshop. Over the years, Amazon have continued to grow and add to their services and conform to consumer buying habits, increasing their stock to include far more than books, and now include grocery shopping through Amazon Pantry, as well as eBooks, music downloads and video streaming services through Amazon Prime.
Despite Amazon’s success and the benefits of online shopping, many consumers find that online shopping lacks the personal touch that can only be received from a physical shopping experience.
Visiting a high street retailer gives the consumer the chance to interact with a salesperson directly, opening up the opportunity to ask for product information or advice, to inspect the product for themselves and to essentially ‘try it on for size’. It also offers an immediacy that online shopping cannot provide either. As such, it would seem that there will always be a place for high street retailers.
So what can retailers do to increase their likelihood of survival as more and more businesses close their doors?
LEGO’s flagship store in Trafalgar Square offers something that cannot be attained through online shopping; an in-store experience. Spanning two floors, the store was absolutely teeming with customers of all ages, on a day that was referred to as one of their “more quiet days” by one of the store’s Brick Specialists. The store offers customers a hands-on experience; they can build their own personalised LEGO Minifigures, hand-pick individual LEGO bricks from the ‘Pick A Brick’ wall, and pose for photos and selfies with a variety of impressive LEGO models and statues, including a fully-working replica of Big Ben that stands at almost 7-metres tall.
The LEGO sets and products available in store could almost certainly be found cheaper online, yet consumers opted to visit the high street retailer to purchase their items instead; all for the experience.
More and more retailers are adhering to this strategy and offering in-store experiences, including John Lewis and Topman, so that consumer experience is greater than that of a simple transaction. Many retailers are also utilising what is known as an ‘omnichannel’ approach to their sales strategy, which incorporates all forms of a retailer’s sales channels for a seamless shopping experience, whether they are shopping online, using amobiledevice, social media, or visiting the retailer on the high street.
Though the face of the Great British high street is changing, there will surely always be a place for it.
It just may look a little different than we remember it.