Love, loss and rallying cries on the high street

With festive sales figures out it’s time to reflect on the winners and losers on the high street.

Illustration of an urban street popping out of a smartphone screen, with colourful buildings and cars driving along the road

Many retailers have lost out – the woes the high street faces seem unlikely to let up anytime soon.

From House of Fraser to Debenhams and Sainsbury’s - retailers are suffering and not only at Christmas. Debenhams reported a 5.7% profit fall whereas Sainsbury’s fell 1.1% to 0.9% above the predicted lull

Morale is low, but what’s on the horizon?

Selfridges, a client of ours, have recorded sales figures that defy the ominous trends that retailers face – namely, falling sales and as a result - profitability. Selfridges recorded an 8% increase in sales over the crucial 24 day run up to Christmas, spanning its stores and online offering.

Now, it might be too early to say that high street retailers have turned a corner but, credit where credits due, these figures require consideration and reflection. Let's take a look at what’s behind the figures. 

Where are retailers making ground?

Differentiating to drive sales

A sure-fire way, which seems to have contributed to Selfridges’ success, is looking to create in-store ‘experiences’ which serve as a physical extension of the Selfridges' brand that actually attracted customers (who knew Rock & Roll was so popular) in-store to engage with their products.

Much like the best advertising campaigns, these in-store campaigns had resonance with current and prospective customers alike. As such, they helped to up the ante on the sales front at this crucial time of year.

Rock & Roll in-store experiences cannot be the theme for years to come. However, personalising experiences does work for customers and defies the digital/physical divide.

We've found this in qualitative research across industry verticals. Essentially, offering a point of differentiation can contribute to a commercial formula which drives an increase in sales – all you need to do is make customers feel valued without breaking your brand. That said, this isn’t an easy task and can quickly go wrong. Take targeted advertising for example and the daily backlash brands receive because of it.

Aligning digital and physical touchpoints

This is a hard lesson that high street retailers need to learn fast – purchase decisions aren’t all or nothing. They’re a constellation of influences and touchpoints which ultimately contribute to the purchase of a shirt or a new pair of shoes. 

It’s very unlikely that now, in this day and age, a customer will come into your store and simply buy what they’re after without prior research or shopping around. Yes, they may try the garment on in-store but customers are unlikely to make the purchase there on the spot, at the first time of asking. 

A more likely flow is some low-level Googling, followed by website trawling, potentially resulting in a trip in-store where the garment may be viewed and touched, before going back home for another round of website follow up. Subsequently, the purchase may be made in-store or online, most likely with the cheapest option being chosen.

Getting people to part with their hard-earned cash is becoming increasingly difficult. Online retail may seem easier but it isn’t always best or what people want. Particularly, if you’re a high-end retailer and the quality of your product and the status of the physical outlet signifies a key differentiator from other options on the market.

High street retailers sit on a spectrum but when it comes to those at the top - the mindset of prospective buyers is often not the cheaper cost and the acceptance you’ll have to wait for your package which motivates a purchase. It’s the ability to walk into a store (or browse a single page) and see the price, the product and trying it on and believing “I want it now”. This comes with other benefits such as an easy returns policy, or to swap out the product for another should the fit be off.

Two tips for retailers

It’s important to one be mindful to the complexity of purchase decisions and two align your branded touchpoints across physical and digital – these being the points of reference people have when making a purchase decision. As such, you should strive to offer a more joined-up customer experience that doesn’t fall foul of the folly of the high street or a chalk and cheese perception of your brand.

Remember: Physical retail space on the high street is still a key pillar in supporting or making purchase decisions, don’t focus solely on them but also don’t cast them aside and then ask ‘why’ are we failing? Treat your space as part of a wider journey supporting your brand and indirectly sales.

Summing up

High street retail isn’t dead – it remains an important component of the shopping experience which is more pertinent when a significant meaning is placed on the experience of the purchase and the status that comes with it. When it comes to high-end products - seeing, feeling, touching and the act of buying simply are not the same online as in-store.

Brands can still make headway in this space by offering points of differentiation but also cohesion to the experiences that they offer their customers in-store and online. Joining up the dots will make all the difference.

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