Convenience or Community?

Posted by AB


UNWRAPPING THE STATE OF THE HIGH STREET

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Relaxing, feet up, sipping on a coffee from the comfort of the sofa, it was hard to control the smirk as I congratulated myself for managing to do all of my Christmas shopping online. But it made me wonder, how was the old high street going? It had been awhile since I had heard about the ‘death’ of it, so with laptop conveniently balanced I launched Google to get the latest insight.

Surprise surprise, it was not one of the most talked about topics in 2013 (that would be Miley Cyrus, who came in at No.7*) and more surprisingly, the word ‘recession’ didn’t even make it into the top 20 words (can we please forget about twerking already?), but sadly it has to be said that the old girl is still on a rapid decline and I began to feel a little guilty for not making more of an effort!

With just over 250,000 shops still remaining on the high street today (compared to 750,000 in the mid 1960’s) it is forecasted that by 2018 figures will see a further 22% decline**.

The main continued threat is still online shopping. The Office for National Statistics show internet purchases have increased by an average 15% since 2012 (based on November 2013 vs November 2013 spend) and today it accounts for around 12% of the total spend in the UK retail market. Looking at the figures in detail, proportion of total sales made online can be broken down across:

  • 3.6 – All food (supermarkets, specialist food stores and sales of alcoholic drinks and tobacco)
  • 9.3 – All non-food (non-specialised stores such as department stores, textiles, clothing & footwear, household goods and other stores)
  • 69.7 – Non-store retailing (mail order, catalogues and market stalls).

But journals and economists all agree that like the titanic, there is no saving her…and this comes as no shock to the larger retailers who, whilst still expanding  (major food retailers such as M&S, Poundland and Lidl have all expanded in 2013 and will continue to expend in 2014 despite an average rental increase of 5%), brands that offer online services are heavily investing in their online shopping portals to at least keep customers. It is predicted that the share of online retail sales will rise to 21.5% by 2018**. It also has to be said that around 160 major or medium-sized companies are expected to go into administration by 2018 involving the loss of 22,600 stores and 140,000 employees. The larger retailers will continue to survive, at the cost of closing more than half of their stores, and it is also predicted that retailers with a strong web presence will only need 70 high street stores to create a national presence (compared to 250 in the mid 2000’s).

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Weighing up all that information, as dramatic as it sounds, with such a time-poor society there are just too many benefits of online shopping for it to be ignored. Saying that, there are also a lot of negatives, especially when it comes to clothes shopping. We are reliant on images to give a true definition of colour (important from a design agency perspective…could you imagine if we guessed a clients logo colour based on an electronic visual!), the disappointment when you eagerly open your delivery to realise that your blue item is in fact green, or the fact that you can’t touch the product; feel the fabric and judge the quality for yourself. Then you have to take into account sizing; I have started my own personal spreadsheet to record size variations across the labels: a 42” chest for a Zara jacket is a 44” at Cos (please note sizes are fictitious, telling measurements would be, well, cheating)!

Returning items are however becoming easier and more convenient; no more waiting in line at your local post office, for over an hour, just to receive an ‘evidence of return’ voucher. Retailers now use their own courier services to deliver and collect items (the growth of online shopping has allowed companies to take shipping logistics in-house, no longer reliant on companies like DHL, for example), and the introduction of “CollectPlus” allows returns to be dropped off at your local convenience store, easily and effectively.

Deliveries are getting quicker with a lot of companies now providing same or next day services for orders placed before a certain time. Net-A-Porter/Mr Porter offer a same day London service delivered by their branded fleet of couriers (who needs shops for brand recognition when they’re driving up and down the high street?). It’s also worth mentioning that Amazon are currently testing unmanned drones, called Octocopters, that could deliver packages weighing up to 2.3kg to customers in 30 minutes from placing the order. It will however be at least 5 years before we see these gadgets flying over-head.

So how do we, as consumers, choose whom to purchase our items from?

High-end online stores such as Net-A-Porter/Mr Porter or Matches provide a large range of designer brand products under one roof – clear competitors for the likes of Selfridges, Harvey Nichols etc. In fact, Matches has already branded all of it’s high street stores to ‘matchesfashion.com’ to unify the brand and align it with it’s online sales.

Mid stream brands such as Zara and Cos are rather new to the online shopping arena, jostling for market share against even newer companies such as ASOS and Thread.

And we must not forget the discount designer retailers – BrandAlley, Achica, Secretsales – for anyone that has seen the movie “Confessions of a Shopaholic”, you will never have to fight the crowds at a designer sale to bag the best bargain again.

What will keep us coming back to sites, apart from quality of product and service, will be the little details that stick in our mind whenever we receive our order.

A few examples of companies pushing the online experience envelope:

  • ASOS: provided hard sweets in their packaging over the festive season (you naturally didn’t need to return the sweets if you returned the item)
  • Thread: provide customers with their own personal stylist who sends weekly email ‘style’ recommendations with the ease of one click purchasing. You rate and score the outfits and provide feedback of what you want to receive next week; or
  • Net-A-Porter/Mr Porter: have taken the gift wrapping service to a new level, providing lovely packaging with your own name printed on the packaging sticker and the option to include a personalised printed message card.

And who doesn’t like to feel even more appreciated and have access to fashion ‘previews’ before collections hit the stores and websites? An added bonus to loyal customers from a few of the retailers who are taking our online spend very very seriously.

I’m not sure about you but if retailers provide free gift-wrapping then I strongly recommend you take advantage of this service. There is still something special about receiving a beautifully wrapped item “from me, to me” – even if we know what it is and we actually paid for it. With the bulk of all online items being delivered to the office, work colleagues are generally interested to know what’s inside the brown box packaging and in most circumstances we are happy to satisfy their intrigue.

So is it these little things that are going to create brand loyalty online? In a word, YES. We naturally want to feel we are getting our moneys worth, and with so much choice around these days, the same products available across multiple competitor sites, it’s going to come down to the ultimate user experience – although I’m just happy not to have to deal with the crowds on the high streets and in store!

Right, must get on, I need to look for a new book for my Kindle and I think the groceries are due at the door any minute now. I suppose I will have to make my self another cup of coffee, or I could call the ‘Hangover Delivery Angels’ who will deliver anything I want for a £5 fee. Shame they are based in Kent but luckily I don’t have a hangover and am in need of burning some of the Christmas calories so I think I can manage that myself, just! Happy shopping.

Looking to develop your brand, whether it be online or on the high street? Contact Abi on 020 7378 3456

Sources: *Facebook “Most talked about topics 2013” **Centre for Retail Research