Can social media save the high street?

The town centre is dying, whilst online retail flourishes. But can social media save the high street? The Drum explores the impact a strong online community can have on brick and mortar stores.

Despite Mary Portas's best efforts, the high street remains on a downward spiral. A Deloitte 2012 report suggested that four out of 10 shops will close in the next five years, resulting in a high street lined with coffee shops and internet kiosks.In contrast to the struggling high street, online retail spending has soared with online sales forecast to reach £43 billion by 2015 - accounting for 14 per cent of all retail sales. The music, film and gaming industries have seen the most dramatic change as more than half of CDs and DVDs are now being sold online - UK based computer game retailer, Game, went into administration in early 2012 with business hit by competition from online-only retailers whilst Borders and Zavvi went bust in 2011 and 2010 respectively. With such closures becoming more common many believe that the internet will prove to be the final nail in the coffin for the British high street.Or will it? As retailers are increasingly turning to Facebook and Twitter in a bid to drive sales and get people back into their stores, The Drum asks industry insiders how social media can help save the high street?Penny Anderson, consultant at digital management consultancy Reform, recognises that the decline of the high street is far too complicated to be saved by social media alone, stating "issues like parking, planning problems and increasing rates are not likely to be saved by social media". Indeed, despite a Facebook following of over two million, Topshop boss Sir Phillip Green admitted that he may have to close ten per cent of his stores if rents cannot be negotiated. However, Anderson goes on to say that where people are using well thought out and integrated strategies, social media can actually boost instore performance. So what are these strategies and how can businesses use them effectively?For the experts from Reform, MARS\Y&R and Kilip the idea of social community was clearly key. "In large part the high street is in decline due to the fragmentation of communities – more families are working longer hours and there are fewer stay-at-home mums due to the recession. In some ways social and online tools can help to restore community spirit where it has fallen apart, because if the internet is utilised effectively it can benefit local high streets and communities," continued Penny Anderson.This idea is further explained by Matt Barnett, head of digital at MARS\Y&R as he suggests that "a real focus on the local community is where social media can really drive success. Think about what Waterstones does both in its stores in terms of recommendations from local staff and how it has mirrored this on twitter by allowing each store to develop its own voice and true sense of local community. As a result people feel a real affinity with the brand locally." Barnett refers back to 2008 when Waterstones embarked on an ongoing social media campaign, introducing innovative projects like twinterviews as well as creating an individual twitter profile for each store location. Through the local and nationally targeted social media strategy, Waterstones connected with consumers, generating online conversation and driving them to one of its 296 stores. The high street retailer was promoted to 3rd position in Google's natural search for books, where rival Borders faced administration just two years later.So is creating an online community key to a lasting high street community? Katie White, head of Isobar Social, believes that "the likes of Topshop and John Lewis – with over 300,000 fans – have strong presences on Facebook that keep their customer bases consistently engaged through the right balance of incentives, product showcase and entertainment," which ultimately means the online community is being constantly targeted and driven in store. And once customers are instore retailers must make the most of the opportunity to get them back online, Anderson continues: "retailers could encourage people to share purchases at point of sale and provide good internet connections in-store so that consumers don’t leave and do research about their products at home." Thus creating a network which is strengthened each time a customer visits their local high street store and updates their social media profile with information on their experience.Consistency in service is therefore crucial. Matt Gierhart from Kilip elaborates on how poor use of social media will affect in store customer service: "The advice you get in store may be markedly different from advice given via social media and employees on the front line may often have little time and patience for what comes out of “head office”. What happens is that marketing departments will make big decisions which can easily fall flat when staff instore are not factored in and communicated with appropriately. These are real wasted opportunities." A good example? Pizza delivery company Domino's -its ability to execute coupons via FourSquare which its staff each knows about has impressed the retail industry. 
Barnett from MARS\ Y&R goes on to tell The Drum that social media can also provide a personalised service which is becoming more crucial to today's shopper living life at breakneck speed. "Social media is great for providing real time information – the latest offers, daily specials and up to the minute news, deals and offers. These can then be promoted via a range of social media channels such as Facebook or Twitter. Local coffee shops are also starting to allow customers to place their order via Twitter, saving them the time and hassle from queuing. Local sandwich shops are tweeting their lunchtime specials and other stores, such as shoe repair and dry cleaning services, are using social media to tell you when your service is ready." This, once again, goes back to community and the basic requirement of retailers to understand the modern shopper, what they need and how they communicate it.So it seems that social media certainly has a key part to play in the rejuvenation of British high streets. Will it rescue it from the "To Let" sign in the sky? Who knows. But if used authentically, intelligently and creatively then businesses stand every chance of getting the modern shopper into their high street store.

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Jennifer Faull

Jen Faull is Brands Editor at The Drum. Based in London, she has interviewed major business figures including top marketers from Mondelez, Unilever, Tesco, and Lidl.

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