Retailers cannot cling to their old dreams anymore

The future of retail is blended experiences, with digital stores taking center stage.
9 July 2018

New technologies can breathe new life into retail spaces. Source: Shutterstock

Bill Grimsey, former Chief Executive of Wickes, Iceland and Booker, in the recently published Grimsey Review 2 said, “there is no point clinging to a sentimental vision of the past”. There is too much retail space in the UK and town centers need to be repopulated as community hubs, he concluded.

Not everyone is fully onboard with this assessment, however.

Polly Barnfield, Founder and CEO of conversational commerce platform, Maybe*, believes that the report could go further to articulate the modern digital customer journey and the skills needed to serve it.

“Our children can have variety at their fingertips through their online world,” she said.

“A physical experience needs to be able to deliver the same variety, but places today don’t deliver that. It requires retail and importantly placemakers to think even bigger. Physical experiences must have a feel-good factor, every place has to give you a good time and be different. Consumers now demand remarkable experiences – not the same experience everywhere.”

Maybe* has surveyed 300,000 members of the public in its #WDYT (What do you think?) community, using its technology through a series of Facebook posts and chatbots. The campaign was undertaken in response to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee’s (HCLG) call for evidence to its High Streets inquiry.

Key findings include: 41 percent more and better shops; 29 percent called for improved/free parking; 16 percent would like a return to smaller, local shops; 11 percent feel there should be more youth activities and community/cultural events. Furthermore, 45 percent of respondents shop on their High Street at least once a week and more than 40 percent never shop online.

Amazon is often portrayed as the cause of all bricks and mortar retailers’ woes. But at its annual UK analyst briefing last week, UK Country Manager Doug Gurr dismissed the broader doom and gloom that has engulfed the likes of House of Fraser and Marks and Spencer.

He argued that the fundamental basics of retail – selection, price, convenience – haven’t changed. However, the future will be a more blended experience. “There’s still no substitute for touching, feeling, seeing the product. We’ll see more merging in the future,” he commented.

Yes, there is too much retail in the UK at the moment, but the Grimsey Review 2 perhaps drops the ball in suggesting that town centres should be turned into homes and offices.

That could lead to sterile environments across the country. People want entertainment, particularly during these crisis-ridden Brexit times, and retail is an important part of that mix.

Innovative technologies can also breathe new life into the High Street. Alibaba recently debuted its first FashionAI concept store. This was open from Thursday through to Saturday at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and showcased Guess apparel through the likes of smart mirrors.

In addition, each item had its own intelligent lock, supported by radio-frequency identification, gyro-sensors and Bluetooth low-energy chips.

This allowed the mirror to more accurately capture movement and spot the colours, styles and attributes that are most popular among customers.

As Polly Barnfield of Maybe* puts it: “Digital is about providing the tools to make the physical experience more agile. There is a new customer journey and retailers have a new task to deliver that customer experience.”