Can omnichannel retail save UK high streets?


By Ramsey Assal, CEO, The Landsite. 

Concern for the future of the high street is not a new phenomenon, as the digitisation of the world was well in tow before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. 

However, the ensuing lockdowns and restrictions forced many hospitality and retail businesses to make the choice of closing their doors or moving online, where they would now have to compete with online sales giants like Amazon. 

Almost one in four businesses temporarily closed during the lockdown restrictions- of these, as much as 43% may never open their doors again. And early 2020 saw the equivalent of 5 years growth of online retailers over a matter of weeks as the businesses that could do so, moved online. This paints a picture of future high streets featuring little but empty store front and vacant spaces. 

But as lockdown restrictions ease, people are returning to office working, looking for reasons to leave the house again and being hit by a realisation that, prior to the pandemic, in-store shopping and dining experiences were taken for granted. 

So as much as retailers are transitioning online, this doesn’t mean the high street won’t reopen and the need for experiential marketing is still fully fledged. Prior to the pandemic, many high streets were booming with as little as 7% empty store fronts. Considering the demand for in-person shopping, there’s no reason high street shops couldn’t be revived to this previous rate once as we come out of the pandemic restrictions and return to some degree of normalcy.

While online shopping may be convenient, physically seeing products in front of you, being able to hold them and try them on is unmatched in converting and securing product sales. As we all know, it is almost impossible to walk into a store and come out with only what you went in to get, because actually seeing the product in front of you can be far too tempting. 

The sweet spot for retailers to find now is a balance between online and in-store sales, using both of these spaces to work together in an omnichannel approach. A study by World Pay on the Role of Omni-Channel Payments in Driving Business Growth found that omnichannel shoppers spend up to 300% more than customers using just one or the other. 

This gives a cross-channel organisational approach, offering integrated and cohesive marketing strategies. This approach not only makes every touch point with an audience shoppable but allows for customers to check what’s in stock before evening entering the store, putting items in their cart and having it sitting at the register on arrival. Such integration of online and in-store retail combines the ease and convenience of online shopping with the unmatchable in-store experience of interacting with a product before purchasing it.

The businesses that will succeed most here are the ones that use their online platforms to drive footfall in physical stores and vice versa. Many businesses have now adopted click and collect services, and Amazon collection lockers in shopping centres and supermarkets to drive footfall into physical stores, as well as creative in-store incentives with apps and services that help customers through their store journey, making in-store customers aware of their online offering and driving traffic to their sites.

One good example of this is the Brazilian clothing brand, C&A, who display the live number of Facebook likes each item f clothing had on the hangers, showing real-time updates on the most popular items. B&Q also took this omnichannel retail opportunity in their stride with their ‘what’s in the shed’ campaign. This was an online competition, where prizes had to be received in-store- competition winners were given sealed envelopes which contained mystery prizes, but these were null and void unless opened by a member of staff in-store.

And as the national workforce slowly but surely returns to offices, this will increase the footfall we see on high streets which will play its own part in the recovery of high street retail and hospitality businesses. While many companies have adapted to the work from home movement, the coming years are bound to see a return to physical offices for most as virtual meetings and other work from home solutions cannot match the collaboration in-person meetings achieve. And these people returning to work will make use of the high streets on lunch breaks and after work shopping and dining.

So while it’s been an incredibly tough time for businesses and commercial spaces, with the closure of stores as big and far-reaching as Debenhams which has naturally led to speculation that this is the end of the high street as we know it. In actual fact, the future of the high street is bright. Having been stuck inside for the past year, the public are keen to get back to shops, restaurants and bars more than ever. 

And with this demand comes opportunity for those who have been hit by the pandemic to bounce back and even grow, with chances for local businesses and start-ups to claim space on the high street as well as reaching growing audiences online. 

We’re seeing hot spots of demand, driven by shifts to online integration with local shopping, reflected in increased interest for both retail and hospitality sites in city suburbs, home county commuter towns and convenience centres. It’s clear that businesses are preparing for a post-COVID Renaissance for our commercial spaces in the UK.

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