The popularity of the internet has had a huge effect on British retailing. In fact the impact of the web has probably been greater than anyone could have predicted at the turn of the millennium.
Sadly, some of our traditional High Street retailers have become casualties of this changing landscape and many high profile retailers have gone under since the first notable casualty — Woolworths — back in 2008.
However, I don’t believe a tipping point has been reached in terms of the demise of traditional retailers. Over the past 12 months we have seen an increase in brands going bust, but in my view it will even out this year and then tail off.
Those who have survived have been able to reinvent themselves successfully by creating great social campaigns, leveraging the mobile space, improving customer service both in-store and online and targeting customers with great in-store promotions. Those that didn't simply failed to innovate and may have relied too heavily on bank loans with crippling interest payments.
So why has online retail become so popular with UK consumers? Without doubt there are considerable savings to be made by shopping online but it isn’t just the unbeatable discounts that have led to shoppers deserting the High Street.
Online shopping offers much more than convenience. It’s really all about the experience. For example, consumers who stay loyal to their favourite online shopping destination can tap into a realm of added value from bespoke, instant deals and product recommendations right the way through to seeing what their friends and family are buying or recommending. This type of engagement is extremely hard to replicate on the High Street in real time.
The High Street should be trying to compete in the areas where online retailers struggle, such as customer service and return or exchange policies. Online consumers have a legal right to return unwanted goods that they’ve purchased online but there are still retailers on the High Street with “no returns” policies.
Another great way to compete is by holding in-store events using staff with specialist knowledge. These events can be extremely popular, especially when offering discount promotions and a few nibbles! This is a great value added experience that cannot be replicated online. Publicising these events using viral social campaigns can amplify the number of attendees.
Events like this could encourage more people to part with their cash in-store. Also, High Street retailers should improve their store experiences so they become destinations for out-and-about shoppers who want value-added service that you just can't replicate online.
Despite the widely reported failings of some household name brands, I don’t believe British shoppers will lose all confidence in the High Street as a whole.
There are plenty of consumers out there who don’t want to buy every single item online. Many customers will always prefer to be able to look at and touch items for themselves. That’s particularly true for clothing. But I think confidence in gift card purchases has taken a bashing and this may be a big loser for lots of retailers — even those not in trouble.
So the overall picture is far from doom and gloom for retailers. There are plenty of opportunities out there. Smaller and independent traders can certainly take advantage. Most have no red tape and can therefore make quick changes in ways that the big High Street stores can’t.
We find that the independent online retailers are at times able to run bigger deals with us than the High Street stores — not because they have bigger margins, but because they don’t have to get board members to sign off the promotion and they typically have lower overheads. They’re major advantages.
Steve Barnes is the MD and founder of NetVoucherCodes.