‘This town, is coming like a ghost town’

After touring through a country full of desolate high streets littered with boarded-up shops, The Specials droned the lyrics that captured the sense of urban decay in early-80s Britain.

Nearly 40 years later, it appears that history is repeating itself. In the last 12 months, ‘death of the high street’ has appeared in dozens of headlines.

It seems that many commentators are declaring the end of the UK’s high streets as we know them, but that simply isn’t the case. The high street is not dead, it’s evolving fast.

As the needs of consumers change, retailers must learn to reinvent themselves. Those quickest to react and adapt to trends are most likely to thrive, while those that are slower to alter their offering can quickly follow in the footsteps of Woolworths, HMV and BHS.

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This evolution of the high street has resulted in some clear winners and losers. Coffee shops, barbers and beauty salons are thriving while department stores, women’s clothing outlets and newsagents are struggling.

Although most items traditionally bought from brick-and-mortar shops can now be sourced online, the high street really shows its strengths in terms of experience-based purchases. People can’t get their hair cut, or nails done through a tablet.

However, it’s not just the growth of online shopping that’s chipping away at the high street’s profits. Supermarkets open 24 hours a day and mega stores have pulled shoppers into a single space by offering more items than ever under one roof. As these superstores are often located on the outskirts of town centres, customers are lured away from traditional retail hubs.

SME opportunities among big brand casualties

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With great change comes great opportunity, and whenever a chain exits the high street it leaves a gap for an SME to fill. Watching long-established household names collapse could put off many would-be retailers, so let’s look at what caused these brands to fail so that we can learn from them.

Case study: BHS and Banana Republic

Prior to closure, BHS lost money for seven consecutive years. Whereas other department stores brought in concessions or third-party brands to offer better choice, BHS failed to do so.. Their products were neither unique or luxurious, and its website failed to perform either in terms of generating online purchases or persuading customers to visit one of the company’s huge, heavily stocked stores.

Banana Republic tried to occupy a workwear space with pricey clothes at a time when the British workplace was undergoing a dress-down trend and Primark was the first stop for bargain hunting post-recession shoppers. After recording losses for six quarters, it closed all eight of its UK stores after just eight years of trading.

In both cases, it was not necessarily a slump in demand for products that led to their demise, but rather poor strategy. Understanding the market and having the ability to react quickly means that SMEs and other agile businesses can tap into trends and better defend their spot on the high street.

Retail makes way for food, entertainment and services

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Technology keeps people in touch, but we still like to meet up for a chat over a hot drink, as is shown by the number of new cafes, tea rooms and coffee shops opening. This is evidence that our retail hubs are being replaced by what are better described as social hubs.

Top UK Store Openings - 2016

Top UK Store Closing - 2016

The retailers that are thriving in the current climate are those that offer products that consumers simply feel more comfortable buying in person. These are often products that have a high price point, are difficult to return, or are new to the market or purchaser.

Vape shops are a great example of where consumers prefer to purchase in person. As vaping is a relatively new trend, people want to touch and feel the product and seek advice from the retailer. However, great service can be the difference between closing a sale and the customer going home to purchase online—and this is where SMEs can really flourish. From learning the names of regulars to taking a real interest in everyone who walks through the door, face-to-face interaction and great service is the best tool retailers have to differentiate themselves from the crowd.

Surviving the modern high street: bricks and clicks

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Big brands are retreating online where their huge warehouses, logistics expertise and large product ranges can be used to serve customers without the need for bricks-and-mortar premises. SMEs don’t have that luxury.

Though physical and online retail are often seen as opposite ends of the spectrum, it’s actually a combination of traditional retail and digital technology that will help businesses survive today’s high street. Consumers expect a 360° experience. They want to view products online, try-and-buy in store and give feedback via social media.

Traditional tactics

The foundations of creating a successful business haven’t changed, but the media available to deliver that strategy have.

Word of mouth

The oldest—and still the most successful—method of building a loyal following is through word of mouth advertising. Customers need to experience something exceptional to talk about you. Meeting or surpassing expectations won’t cut it—businesses must go above and beyond to warrant a mention in passing conversation. Products or services must be fine-tuned to appeal to a fully researched and understood target market.

Raising the invisible bar is difficult, and staff can’t be solely relied on to provide an outstanding customer experience. Everyone has good and bad days, and service can be inconsistent, even in the best establishments.

Providing full training and outlining the minimum standards of customer service expected of employees can help SMEs to surprise and delight patrons and thus elicit a coveted recommendation. This guide from Survey Monkey provides key elements to improving customer service, which are applicable regardless of the industry.

Building loyalty

Loyal customers are the most profitable—there are several tactics that small and medium-sized retailers can use to keep people coming back.

  • Be consistent and reliable

    Make it clear what the business stands for and stick to it. When offering luxury products, a retailer shouldn’t undermine this position by holding regular flash sales or advertising large discounts. Similarly, a sudden hike in price or a change in product lines will not be well received.

  • Employ product experts

    Everyone who interacts with a customer should know what they are selling, show a passion for it and pass that on to whoever walks through the door. With so much information available online, if a customer asks for help, they really need it. Making sure they get it on the spot provides them with a sense of security and trust.

  • Give customers a say

    They are always right, after all! Ask customers if there is anything else they’d like to see in store and act on this. How you do this will depend on your industry. It might be questionnaires inside a menu, asking a few questions at the counter or even an instore tablet where opinions can be expressed.

Perfecting customer service

While loyal customers are integral to a retailer’s success, it is ultimately the staff that determine the success of a shop, food outlet or service provider. If employees feel valued, they are much more likely to become brand advocates and provide great service.

Many high street retailers complain about being showrooms for the likes of Amazon. Customers walk in, see the product they are interested in, decide that they want to purchase it—then go home and do it online. However, a Kellogg Shopper Index survey found that of those who admitted to ‘showrooming,’ 40% were fully intent on buying in store but were "driven to leave" because of bad customer service.

Exclusivity

In order to compete with high street brands, SMEs must differentiate themselves with the products they have on offer. Exclusivity is an effective tool to enhance demand. Jake Hardy, owner of independent menswear store Number Six, competes with chains by specialising in "clothes from brands that you don’t generally find in the big stores" and by only purchasing limited edition stock from big name brands.

Pop-ups are also now a popular method of enhancing the appeal of exclusivity. This is also useful for testing new products, educating new customers, and generating brand awareness. You can read about some interesting examples of pop-ups here.

Online presence

The importance of an online presence shouldn’t be overlooked by even the smallest start-up. An attractive and functional website can be a business’s best employee, rolling marketing, customer services and sales into one. But that’s just a stepping stone towards a full digital strategy that not only drives online sales but boosts footfall.

The Dollar Shave Club YouTube video is probably one of the most successful content marketing efforts from a brand within the past decade. It has gained more than 24 million views since it was published in 2012, and boosted the brand into the mainstream. It was clearly created on a low budget, but its ability to leverage humour helped it go viral.

Social media strategy

Social media is often the first port of call for start-ups and SMEs looking to gain traction from their digital marketing efforts. A solid social strategy is flexible, targeted and personal, focused not only on getting people in-store with offers and product announcements, but on retaining them with customer service and useful digital content.

Manchester-based coffee chain Java Bar Espresso has four sites across the city and uses Facebook to great effect. Regular posts, usually featuring an image about new products and events interspersed with a few mentions of employees and the local area create a personal feel that engages regulars and keeps them updated.

Local SEO

SEO has been around for a while and it’s an area where the goalposts constantly move, giving smaller businesses plenty of opportunity to chip away at their competitors. With most of us now using mobile devices to search online, major search engines are placing more emphasis on local results.

For small businesses, SEO is a cost-effective solution that lets them easily analyse the success of their efforts.

“The internet can be the great leveller," says Miriam Ellis, local SEO expert. "If we can help the little guy compete on the web, we can promote valuable local flavour even in major cities. Monopolies aren’t consumer-centric, and if quality and variety suffers, the customer isn’t well-served.”

Jules B, a fashion retailer with four stores across the North-East of England performs very well for several keywords and local searches. The website lists the addresses of its stores very clearly on a page that is linked to from the homepage, offers a store finder and provides virtual tours of each site.

For further advice, check out this comprehensive guide at Moz.com.

IN-STORE TECH

A high-tech approach does not have to be limited to the online domain and can go further than a well-built website. In-store tech can offer an improved customer experience, as well as a deeper level of valuable insight and customer feedback.

Businesses can track purchases, offer flexible payments and ping pop-up adverts onto people’s smartphones as they walk past their stores. The Regent Street Shopping App allows subscribed stores on Regent Street in London to silently ping customers’ smartphones as they walk past with pop up as messages featuring targeted deals, discounts and promotions. Halfords offers a quality yet understated experience for its customers who can search for car parts by simply typing their licence plate into one of the in-store tablets.

iZettle, a financial tech company championing the in-store tech revolution for SMEs, offers the Order & Pay app to independent hospitality businesses. The app allows customers to pre-order and pay for items for delivery or collection in-store, awarding loyalty points for each purchase as they go while offering greater convenience and flexibility.

Vend is another useful business software tool. It allows the owner to easily track sales and to provide quick data on what items, products and services are and aren’t working well. Its key benefit is that it allows business owners to make decisions based on clear consumer data. Hops Burns & Black are a South London seller of craft beer, who say that Vend has saved them "hours spent on stocktaking," creating a much more accurate stock take at the end of each quarter and giving them a stronger focus on profitability.

Partnerships

The advent of aggregator sites has changed the way businesses develop partnerships. Providing everything from loyalty programmes for independent retailers to booking services, these aggregators help businesses fill empty appointment slots and reduce no-shows and build an online reputation with reviews, all while retaining a personalised, local service.

Treatwell is helping small high street beauty service-based businesses, such as hairdressers and spas, to grow by allowing customers to purchase services and vouchers online and provide reviews.

The Urban Chocolatier, which has three dessert bars across London and Bradford, has taken advantage of LoyalZoo’s loyalty platform to replace its old card and stamp system giving customers the choice to keep loyalty points on their phone.

The future of the high street

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Like most other industries, high streets are not what they were 50, 20 or even five years ago. Consumers’ needs have evolved and those that aren’t able to satisfy new demands or keep up with trends have been forced to close their doors. Those wanting to make a go of it must understand and play by the new rules. Stacking it high and selling it cheap isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ strategy. Outlets must really focus on customer service and experience to differentiate themselves.

Customers want to engage with brands on all levels and those with a strong physical and digital offering are often the most successful. New digital technology that can be used both in store and on potential customers’ own devices has given SMEs the tools to compete with much bigger and long-established brands. Cashless purchases, loyalty schemes and feedback collection methods can be easily implemented by non-technical start-ups, further supporting their success on today’s high street. The high street is certainly not dead—if SMEs can adapt to the rules of this new terrain, the rewards are theirs for the taking.