Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

What High Street retailers can learn from online brands to adapt to the new pace of retail

By Sophia King, Senior Brand Marketing Manager at Mention Me

Despite the UK inching ever closer to the end of Covid-19 restrictions, the future looks precarious for our High Streets. Instead of a bustling hub of activity, many are now near-deserted, populated by more pigeons than people. Andrew Goodacre, CEO at the British Independent Retailers Association, believes we have witnessed “five years’ worth of internet sales growth and five years of high-street decline” in a single year

That’s not to say, however, that it’s all over for the High Street. When non-essential shops reopened on 12th April, pent up consumer demand was evident in the snaking queues outside shops like Selfridges, JD Sports and Primark. Ecommerce sales dropped by 6%.

Shoppers queue outside recently reopened High Street stores

Despite the economic hardship Covid-19 has caused for many, it’s clear consumer appetite remains. The challenge for multichannel retailers now is to capture – and satisfy – this appetite in a way that keeps customers coming back. To investigate how they might do this, we’ve looked to the online brands scooping up market share as legacy retailers plan their next move. 

Here are 5 learnings High Street retailers can take from digital brands.

Improve your online customer journey

If you were one of the few people still in denial about the future being online, the pandemic likely changed your mind, fast. Overnight, the alarm bells of relying on a physical presence became deafening. The brands that ignored them saw sales and market share plummet. 

Now, acting quickly is crucial to recovery. Put your money where your mouth is and invest in the right resources. Get tools that speak to one another to create slick user experiences and automate processes that free up your teams to focus on the tasks robots can’t. Hire talented professionals with the knowledge and vigour to lead your digital transformation. 

Don’t be fooled by the queues outside recently reopened brick-and-mortar stores. Pent up demand from consumers desperate to get out of the house is not the same as sustained demand, which looks unlikely to return to pre-Covid levels. Consumer behaviour has changed for good – adapting to this is essential to surviving the coming year and beyond. 

Provide seamless multichannel experiences 

Though often an advantage, High Street retailers shouldn’t rely on their physical presence. Not everyone wants to go in-store, especially now it involves masks, one-way systems and queues. Offering alternative options is crucial to keeping customers browsing and buying from you, rather than your competitors. Can your customers try on products virtually, like Mister Spex? Can they visit a sister store in person, like Snug Sofa

Once you’ve mastered the basics of bridging the gap between on and offline – such as accepting online returns in-store – consider how you can further enhance the customer experience. Fashion retailer Zara’s in-store mode, for example, lets customers order then collect clothes within 30 minutes. In-store, they can use the integrated stock management system to find products viewed online, then reserve fitting rooms to try them on.

As well as driving repeat purchases, these tools equip you to learn about your customers and tailor their experiences. Zara’s app invites in-store customers to checkout online, meaning the fashion giant can track customer purchases, whether they’re shopping in store or from the comfort of their sofa. 

Get personal

Being customer-centric is about more than putting it in your mission statement. A truly customer-centric business makes every decision based on their customers, continuously engaging with them to understand their changing needs. The trick is to know what your customers want before they do themselves, like the pure play online brands offering at-home meal kits in the early days of the pandemic.

Of course, this is easier said than done, especially if you’re a legacy retailer with thousands of employees. But it’s the job of those at the top to reinstill that market-oriented approach and embed it at every level of the business. Once you get to know your customers – and we’re talking really getting to know them through focus groups, surveys and ethnographic research – create segments of similar customers. 

Identify the precise elements of your business that should attract your target customers, then refine your marketing to effectively engage each segment. Rather than, for example, sending out a monthly newsletter to every subscriber promoting the same goods, use dynamic content to promote products most likely to resonate with shoppers based on previous purchases. Make it feel personal, whether that shopper is online, in-store or both.

Keep adapting and experimenting 

Much of the success of digital-first brands is their agility – a strength that became particularly prominent when lockdown hit. Almost right away, these brands connected with their customers to find out what they wanted, then doubled down to fulfil those wants. Look at Grind, a London coffee shop that pivoted to offer online coffee subscriptions, complete with compostable, millennial pink packaging.

Coffee shop chain Grind now sells products online

Long-term strategy planning undoubtedly has its place, but it can’t underpin every campaign. Don’t be afraid to test quick and dirty tactics, such as time-limited incentives. Invest with minimal overheads, so you have little to lose if the risk doesn’t pay off. It might feel daunting, but the biggest risk of all is doing nothing. Wait too long to implement that new strategy, and your online competitors may well have backed you into a corner beyond recovery. 

Build a community

Human connection is one of the most powerful influences on our behaviour. Tap into this by turning your customers into a community that’s rooted in living and sharing your brand purpose with the rest of the world. Sweaty Betty is a great example of a brand getting this right. As well as selling high-quality products, the British retailer offers workout sessions, wellness tips, motivational stories, nourishing recipes and more, all underpinned by its mission to empower women. 

Sweaty Betty’s Instagram grid reflects its mission to empower women

Think about how you can bring your community to life on and offline. Promote your values with unmissable posters in-store; invite customers to real-life meet-ups and group events; bring your values to life in your actions, such as H&M promoting sustainability through its clothes recycling bins.

Your company’s best marketers are – or, rather, should be – your customers. 51% of consumers trust a recommendation from their friend more than any other advertising. Offer products and services your customers love, and they’ll tell others about it. People who will listen and may well become customers themselves. 

Conclusion

In 2021, shops are more than somewhere to try on clothes and complete transactions. They’re experiential spaces where consumers can connect with brands that share their values and beliefs. And they’re centred on the customer. This is retail on customer terms: experiences rooted in functionality, use and value. 

Rather than see digital and physical channels as competing, take advantage of having both. Bridge the gap to create seamless customer experiences that stand out. Experiment with how to attract your target customers, constantly testing and learning what gets their attention.

The High Street isn’t dead; it’s different. The businesses that embrace this will thrive. 

What else can High Street retailers learn from digital brands? How do you believe the future looks for Life on the Digital Street? Let us know by joining the conversation on social #LifeontheDigitalHighStreet.