High street retailers must rediscover that emotional connection with consumers

Danni Findlay, director, Marketing Sciences
Danni Findlay, director, Marketing Sciences

It's just over a year since the first 12 towns were selected to receive funding under the Mary Portas Pilot scheme. But last week we learned that 10 of these now have more empty shops than when the initiative began.

A Commons Select Committee has also been convened to hear evidence on why the UK retail sector and its high streets are in such decline. It‘s essential we tackle the structural issues associated with this decline but retailers have a huge role to play.

With the rise of online retail, out of town shopping centres and the challenging economic conditions, we can see the high street is evolving. Retailers must adapt to our changing lives and shopping expectations.

Those that have so far failed to do so are struggling or disappearing. But for those that can, there are real opportunities. As I work in a business that is all about understanding consumers, we also have to remember that consumers want different things from different categories. Sometimes we want to stop, linger, touch and feel things. Other times, we just want to get out quickly.

The need for experiential

More and more retailers are trying to foster greater interaction and build an emotional connection with us. This is especially a challenge for supermarkets where 39% of us consider grocery shopping a chore and want to get in and out as fast as we can. But this problem is not unique to supermarkets – if a store is not engaging, we will not linger.

If we feel comfortable and stimulated, we’ll stay in a shop for longer. This focus is becoming less about retail per se and more about leisure.

Retailers can increase our engagement in a number of ways. A good starting point is to make changes at the fixture.

This doesn’t mean overloading the shelves with special deals and offers but instead taking a subtler approach with the use of headboards, changing lighting to create ambience and alternative fixtures to generate a new look and feel which makes shopping easier and pleasurable for us.

If we feel comfortable and stimulated, we’ll stay in a shop for longer and potentially purchase more. This focus is becoming less about retail per se and more about leisure.

It’s also important for experiential retailers to create an emotional connection with us. Despite our best intentions we don’t always shop rationally. High street retailers can rarely compete with the internet on price, so they must demonstrate how the products they offer will benefit us beyond just value for money. 

This perceived worth could be that we’ll receive first class service or that the store is a place we enjoy spending time. Apple stores are just one well known example where the shopper experience is paramount. From the carefully considered architecture to the Genius Bar and excellent customer service, Apple aims to build a relationship with its customers while at the same time allowing us to play and engage with their products with no sales pressure. And more recently, Lush, the cosmetics shop, has announced plans to introduce spas in its UK stores.  

Better when connected

We all know that digital is a huge part of the shopping process for many of us.  Over a third of shoppers think they’ll shop online more often than in store in future. This is driving high street retailers to create a multi or omni-channel offer.

Technology shops are a prime example.  As we’ve seen in recent months with the collapse of Jessops and HMV, it’s no longer necessary to buy a camera or DVD from the high street. 

With nearly half of us researching products online before we buy offline and 43% using smartphones to compare prices and read product reviews on the move, it’s no surprise that retailers need to develop an online offer to compete with the internet behemoths.

But we should not underestimate the benefits of a high street presence. Click and Collect is a growing phenomenon. Some 80% of UK shoppers have reserved products online for collection in store in the past year – up from 74% in 2011.

Retailers should think about how they market extra convenience services (such as Click and Collect) and maintain a high street presence while also marketing and growing an online offer. Connected stores will have to give us a digital experience and unite services offered online with those offline.  Integration is the name of the game. Consumers don’t care how retailers do it, but offering an omni-channel experience which is seamless and easy for them to shop is key.

There’s still a place for the high street store, but to survive the changes taking place, retailers need to think laterally and creatively: to develop stores that engage with us and create an emotional connection, or that offer both online and offline services that give us what we want, when we want it.  Retailers need to strike now.  

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