Opinion: why reports of the death of the high street are greatly exaggerated
By Chris O’Reilly, chief executive of Presto Music.
It’s very easy to forget that high street retail was facing challenging times long before Covid-19 came along. The proliferation of ecommerce platforms over the past couple of decades was always going to draw to an extent consumers’ attention away from stores and towards screens, while device manufacturers continue to find inventive ways to tap into our more impulsive nature by granting us the ability to browse, click and buy in the space of a few swipes on our tablets and smartphones.
When framed within this context, it becomes clear that Covid-19 was never a catalyst of change in retail – it merely expedited it. At the time of writing we’re facing our third national lockdown in less than 12 months, while countless stores have yet to return to pre-pandemic business levels and ecommerce continues to enjoy a rise that can only be described as meteoric (for added perspective, ecommerce accounted for almost a third of all UK retail sales in May and June alone last year).
Of course, we can’t blame retailers for making the strategic decision to invest in ecommerce platforms during these challenging times. Lockdowns and social distancing measures have meant that consumers have been incapable of enjoying (let alone visiting!) their favourite stores, therefore most retail brands realised that an improved online experience was better than offering no experience at all for their customers. It’s financial self-preservation.
However, it would be a little precipitous to declare the long touted “Death of the High Street”. If anything, the events of 2020 have taught us two things about retail. First of all, people have sorely missed engaging in communal activities, including the experience of shopping in a physical store. Secondly, time away from the stores has only highlighted the aspects of the customer experience that online platforms are not able to replicate.
With ecommerce, customers get a wider selection of stock, user reviews, product information and the comfort of next-day delivery options. However, swiping across items on a screen simply does not compare to the more intimate, tactile experience of browsing through products in a physical store, where you can converse with like-minded people who share the same taste as you do. And after a year spent holed up in our own homes, there is a palpable sense of nostalgia for walking around a store you haven’t been to for far too long.
We should also use this opportunity to point out that our predilection for online stores should not be conflated with a general apathy towards physical ones, nor should access to a multitude of ecommerce platforms be mistaken for an opportunity to supplant brick-and-mortar further. In fact, ecommerce and brick-and-mortar should be viewed as complementary, not competing platforms. While the former is all about choice and availability, the latter appeals to consumers with more tangible features, whether it is a physical store’s set-up, interior decor or location in a popular urban centre.
The message is clear: while they may be experiencing a slump, we shouldn’t write off brick-and-mortar stores just yet. If anything, we should view them as old, familiar spaces that have the ability to ignite a powerful sense of nostalgia inside us. And for that reason alone, we should all be looking forward to the experience of walking through the doors of that old store we’ve missed so much over the past year.
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