Amidst the latest round of retail closures, Management Today recently asked the question that few have been willing to voice. “Could it be that the high street just isn’t relevant anymore?” Sacrilege! Or is it?
For all the Portas Reviews, consultations and downright complaining, high street retailers are still losing out to online and struggling to match prices and stock levels. The kneejerk response from bricks and mortar is to look to ways to level the financial playing field. One high profile example of this in recent weeks has come from Justin King. The Sainsburys chief has called on the Government to introduce a marketplace fairness tax for online retailers, levelling the playing field between bricks and mortar retailers which are subject to business rates and online, for which there is no equivalent.
But long-term, realistically, is the price/profit war one that high streets will actually be able to win against online? Probably not – but maybe that’s ok, the race to the bottom isn’t always a strategy that works out. So perhaps what bricks and mortar should be doing is saying vive la difference and shifting focus beyond the purely transactional.
This is not a new concept and a number of retailers have reassessed their physical presence to focus more on the experiential than transactional in order to get consumers through the door. This trend is not about countering online sales, but turning shops into experiences that can promote purchases. The Disney store has been doing it for years and doing it well. As one of the pioneers of retail-tainment, it offers shoppers a completely immersive experience, designed to make children leave the shop happy but begging to return! The team behind the original stores argued that they never wanted the stores to be just places where merchandise is sold, but that it should be about the entertainment it provides.
The Apple store is another prime example of how shopping has morphed into an experience to be reckoned with. Realising that consumers want a different experience in store to the one they have online, the Apple store has stripped away its cash registers and instead uses roaming sales assistants, hands-on devices at every turn and a Genius Bar where technical staff offer face-to-face product and device support. You could spend hours in here and come out with absolutely nothing, and that’s exactly the point.
Many brands have built their brand image around retail-tainment; US brand Anthropologie has a living wall in store, as well as scented candles throughout, Abercrombie and Fitch uses loud music, models and perfumed rooms to create an intense shopping experience and Burberry’s flagship store on Regents Street is used as an venue as well as shop, hosting live gigs and events.
It’s worth noting though, that amongst the good, there are the outright ugly. Mary Portas’ plight to save the high street may have helped revive some ailing high streets by injecting a cash boost into new businesses, helping them take over empty stores. But the money allocated to pilot towns hasn’t always been spent wisely. While Disney got it right with their theatrical and somewhat magical approach to in-store entertainment, the likes of Dartford Council, who received a grant as part of the scheme, spent 24 per cent of its money on children’s TV characters, in the hope of pulling in the punters. The purchase of a Peppa Pigg costume was met with mixed reactions from local residents. Costing £1,610 in the hope of boosting morale, it had the adverse effect of making people feel a little flat. The Labour group leader, Councillor Geoffrey Prout claimed “It hasn't helped the image of Dartford and quite frankly it's a bit of a joke.”