What Online Retailers Can Learn from the High Street

Boarded up shops have become a sadly familiar sight. Well-known retailers continue to disappear from the high street, with House of Fraser the latest to collapse in the death throes of administration, and Debenhams looking like it could be the next company to follow suit. In fact, the high street’s plight is considered so great that the Chancellor is even exploring a tax on more successful online retailers to help prop up physical stores. However, as Wajid Ali, head of paid search, Forward3D, argues here, despite this context, there are things online retailers can learn from traditional brick-and-mortar stores.

So, what can online retailers learn from high street stores?

Retail is retail

The recent struggles of the high street to keep the lights on doesn’t stem from a lack of understanding on how to run a retail business. After all, the concept has been around for thousands of years, from traditional marketplaces, bazaars, and souks, to the evolution of fixed physical shop fronts, to the advent of department stores and supermarkets. Centuries of refinement as part of this evolution has resulted in very specific intent behind every single aspect of the physical retail experience that’s presented to the consumer, along with well-defined roles and responsibilities of employees within the given business.

How is a website any different? It isn’t, it’s just another (virtual) storefront. The reasons behind the success of online largely comes as a result of general convenience, pricing, and variety of products available. The general benefits might be creating a level of success for retail websites, but are they trying to maximise business value by being as considered in their approach to serving customers and building teams in the same way as a typical high street store does?

Instinctive collaboration

High street retail, in its simplest form, is a physical and tactile experience; this isn’t just true for customers, it is also true for employees, as well as the business itself. Being able to directly observe how a customer interacts with the store is one thing, but the value of employees being able to physically see and understand each other’s roles is generally overlooked and unacknowledged. This might entail simply understanding the need to support stockroom staff unpacking a delivery, replenish stock of popular items, or understanding the need to have enough cashiers and tills open during busy periods, or even seeing how a new shelf display can impact the customer’s journey through the store. These basic observations enhance the employees’ understanding of the fundamental business objective of generating revenue and, ultimately, profit; which in itself is largely tracked and communicated between employees relatively frequently in a typical retail environment.

Understanding what’s needed

In general, most online businesses do create awareness of website performance and targets internally – if not, then they should be! The inability to physically observe and appreciate the various moving parts that contribute to business performance goes unrecognised with teams working on an online retail business. This issue unfortunately perpetuates ignorance of how individual roles, and in some cases whole departments, fundamentally impact business performance.

Often times, this unfortunate tunnel vision exposes itself in the micro-environment of siloed digital marketing teams. This tends to stem from a lack of understanding of how specific things function, enlisting a ‘specialist’ with the objective of delivering ‘X’, without appreciating the impact that could have on another marketing channel. “Get 10% off your first mobile app purchase this weekend” might be an initiative to drive app downloads, but could leave the search team being interrogated over a drop in revenue for their numbers, scrambling around for a day and a half only to realise the real culprit was five desks away.

Businesses are of course trying to break down these silos, particularly within the example above, but there are still very few businesses collaborating at a more macro level across different functions. Who’s responsible for, or even thinking about, the website customer experience or the offline equivalent of visual merchandising? What is the online customer service strategy or the equivalent of a customer service desk or sales assistant? Does the analytics team understand why the marketing team are asking the devs to implement a change ahead of their own requirements? It’s hard to deny that understanding the value and priority of various functions is easy to see in an offline high street environment; whether that’s the manager asking the sales assistant to jump on the tills rather than work the floor, or asking one of the cashiers to help hand out flyers to drive footfall on a slow evening.

What does this mean?

So, if the high street store is doing such a great job, then why is it failing? The same reason your local corner shops go out of business soon after a supermarket opens up round the corner: scale, selection, and convenience. The online world is a shopfront that has no physical restrictions, open 24/7.

Whilst there’s much that can be learnt from looking at traditional retail processes in an online environment, how does the high street stay relevant and profitable? The focus needs to be around building more immersive in-store experiences and added value that either pushes customers to purchase there and then, rather than using their visit for showrooming, or around embracing new tech developments that add another dimension to the brand-customer relationship, overlaying personalisation that goes beyond the store visit into the digital domain.

Other industries are starting to introduce new roles to address these online/offline touchpoints to try and build a single customer view. This usually starts with the introduction of a chief digital officer, a role type that is expected to become more common among retail businesses too. This relatively new job function is, ultimately, trying to combine the insight from all the digital touchpoints between brands and consumers to ensure that digital teams are able to co-ordinate and monitor activity to benefit the business as a whole, including offline and in-store interactions.

So, what can online retail learn from high street stores? A lot of the basics of retail. How does the high street stay relevant and profitable? By embracing a unified digital approach to their proposition for a more personalised in-store experience, creating a unique need or a want that outweighs the perceived benefits of ordering something online.