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How physical stores can ensure they are refit for the future

By Tom Harwood, Data and Insight manager, Gekko Group

The events of the past couple of years have accelerated the pace of change in the retail industry. Retailers have simultaneously had to react quickly to events out of their control, while also embracing the ongoing trends that were clear even before the pandemic hit.

The role of the physical store has been one of the biggest topics in the spotlight. The absence of stores during lockdowns created two slightly paradoxical trends. Firstly their importance was maintained and even strengthened in certain ways. 

With the growth of ecommerce during the lockdown era, some feared that the writing was on the wall for traditional bricks and mortar retail. These concerns, however, were short lived as shops re-opened their doors and visitors flocked back. 

Yet at the same time, the need for change in the industry was also apparent. Ecommerce was embraced by everyone, even the most hardened luddites, meaning physical retail needed to redefine its purpose. 

According to ONS figures, online share of retail has consistently fallen since its peak back in February 2021. Still far higher than the pre-pandemic level of 19.9%, but with the balance restored somewhat by the opening of the high street. So the demand remains strong yet evolution is required to keep up with the pace of this new retail world environment.

The return to prominence has been so strong that the idea of growing a bricks and mortar presence has become a priority for both existing and new entrants to the market. Many previously online only retailers are developing ambitious plans to expand their portfolios. Amazon itself is reportedly planning on rolling out 260 Amazon Fresh stores across the UK over the next few years in a challenge to the existing grocery hegemony and an effort to make a physical imprint in the market.

So with more stores on the agenda for many, and occupancy rates back on the up as footfall gradually rises once more, how do they need to adapt to succeed in this current retail landscape?

  • Play to their strengths

Consumers have grown more used to utilising both online and offline channels when shopping. Our own research found that 85% of people now research online before heading to a store to purchase. As a result, they are looking for a shopping journey combining the ease of online browsing, with the added ability of being able to try things for themselves and ask for real advice when needed.

Retailers need to ensure they have the most in demand products on display, with all the relevant information at hand, so customers can enjoy getting to know their potential product with ease. Better yet, have knowledgeable brand advisors on hand to answer any questions and demonstrate useful features.

This part of the store experience should be built upon by retailers and the brands they stock as part of wider omnichannel improvements. Invest in improving these elements for the customer in order to create a positive shopping journey, playing to the true strengths of the store. This includes ensuring they truly understand what makes your retail space both an efficient and enjoyable place to be. 

  • Incorporate your online channels

Store expansion does not mean you can forget about the online channel, in fact customers are now expecting their interactions between the two to be seamless.

Consumers should be able to look on your website or app and see product availability in the store they are heading to. Offering an immediate connection to the store keeps the customer on side and more likely to remain loyal in their hunt for an item.

Physical retail can also now play a huge role in online order fulfilment by being a base for deliveries and click and collect orders. Complement this with accessible pick up points so that online customers are satisfied with their entire omnichannel shop, while also helpfully adding to your footfall figures.

  • Embrace technology

We have already touched on how technology might help create a better shopping experience, but there remain many opportunities to embrace it in physical retail.

For example, utilise your app to connect users to their store experiences through better personalisation, stock locations, or further product information.

One brand who are great advocates of this approach is H&M, which has started to roll out tech-enhanced shopping experiences in its COS stores. With seamless payments, personalised recommendations, and even a smart mirror that allows customers to request further items without leaving the changing room.

Offering these convenient elements will help the customer feel empowered, valued, and much more likely to make a repeat visit, while also giving you insightful data. Be forthcoming with the information that matters to them, otherwise shoppers will disengage and look elsewhere for it.

  • Think differently

Stores have the ability to excite and energise in real life better than any other channel, which is why we are seeing collaborations, new events, and online retailers joining in the physical experience.

Online star Bloom and Wild has been opening up a series of pop-up shops around the UK, utilising a bricks and mortar presence to give customers a real view of the plants on offer, with experts on hand to guide and advise. In terms of real engagement, the value of physically promoting your brand in a busy retail area cannot be underestimated.

The idea of the store ‘as an experience’ has grown to such an extent that it expands beyond just individual stores and into entire areas. The new Battersea power station shopping district will be just one example of the new type of retail district. A hybrid of Apple offices, event spaces, shops and hospitality. The combination of which looks to be the key to a bright outlook on high streets and shopping centres. 

The physical store has an exciting future and the possibilities are near endless for those that embrace change. Creating a multidimensional space that compliments rising ecommerce, along with shining in its own right, will create a space customers will yearn to return to. 

By Tom Harwood, Data and Insight manager, Gekko Group

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