Survival of the high street: How post pandemic shopping culture is driving the need for rapid evolution

By Matt Valentine, Director of Aruba UK and Ireland
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It’s hard to overstate what a difficult year 2020 has been for the retail sector, but according to a survey by the CBI, despite multiple lockdowns and the restrictions across the UK, a surge in shopping from home has slightly eased the pressure on retailers and as a result many may be considering their high street space as a thing of the past.

The decline of the high street has been well documented for some time. The announcement of Arcadia as the latest retail giant to fall reminds us once more of the fragile balance our high street faces each day. Brands must think beyond lockdown to understand how major culture shifts in the way we shop will require a completely reimagined future consumer experience, and a tech enabled physical space will be a critical part of this.

Why brands and the high street have a mutual dependency

The seismic shift to online shopping has intensified shoppers’ desire for instant gratification. Where before it may have still been important to try on and touch garments, we now shop based on a photograph on Instagram. Often buying things because of the way they appear on other people rather than knowing how they will complement our own look.

Of course, if expectations are not met, we simply ship things back for a refund. For some, however, the recurring disappointment when purchases do not meet expectations spur nostalgia for the high street, where people yearn to experience and explore which products are best suited to their exact needs.

Rather than turn their back on a physical retail space, brands need to examine how they can provide a complete 360-degree experience for shoppers. To get this right, they are going to need to make sure their digital strategies are flawlessly planned and executed. Of course, before conceptualizing the store and consumer patterns of the future, it is key that retailers are able to reassure customers that they are safe to enter.

Various technology solutions can be used to achieve this. For example, sensors, cameras, and various software packages can all be used to provide information such as the number of customers in store, whether social distancing is in place, customer dwell time is monitored and stock is managed to suit the demographic known to frequent the store. With this information, staff can optimize their utilization of the shop floor space and allow for better customer flow into, through and out of the store.

Additional measures can be taken in store as well such as implementing a fully touchless experience – touch screens just don’t go far enough. 80% of UK shoppers have already changed the way they engage with them, with 51% admitting they aim to always wash or sanitize their hands immediately after using public touchscreens. Brands should instead look at how they can utilize mobile payment options. One example of this is Coca-Cola’s touchless vending machine which uses QR codes to allow customers to ‘mobile order’ themselves a drink.

The future of the virtual store

When they do venture back in store as lockdown once more lifts, customers will be looking for an in-store experience reflective of our modern times, learnings and hope for a new seamless interaction that will keep them coming back for more. They will likely favour spaces where firstly, they feel safe and secondly, are surrounded by technology that helps them browse items to get a real sense of how they look and feel and the technology needed to enable this goes beyond virtual queues and self-checkout.

We’ve already seen retailers such use augmented reality (AR) to create virtual catwalks for their customers and this is something brands could implement with visual displays either in store or in the shop window itself. Going beyond this, shoppers may want to project a virtual image of themselves and scroll through various items to get a clear sense of what they want – and leave having ordered it from the retailers stock as part of fulfilling their experience.

All in all, high street retailers must get ahead and realise the advantages of providing a social experience for customers. Where possible the various stake holders of Britain’s high streets – retailers, landlords, local authorities, and local communities – must work together to collaborate. This could mean the high street becoming more reliant on pop-ups, temporary attractions, drop-in centers or activations.

Getting the basics right

For all these solutions to work and give people a reason to come back and spend – the high street must become more digitally savvy. This includes not just a strong social media presence to advertise but also importantly continuous investment in connectivity - a strong and reliable network to allow their customers to log in and their staff to assist with digital interventions on stock checks, quick payments and product enquiries.

In a time when you can have the instant gratification of an online order, stores providing secure and reliable Wi-Fi for visitors is a major part of creating that positive experience – enabling shoppers to engage with highly personalized experiences, while also providing businesses access to their applications that provide a win-win of sharing the customer data to help create that experience and promote loyalty and present offers to attract buyers to spend.

In this way connectivity is an absolute necessity for businesses rather than an optional extra. This evolving demand is something that should be front of mind for any business no matter the size. A poor wireless service, inside or in outside spaces is detrimental to an organization’s bottom line. Fundamentally businesses need to ensure their network delivers consistently in all areas of their store.

There's no new technology here. This is something that everyone can benefit from now. It’s all available via easy to implement devices accessing cloud-based application from their preferred partners.

In the past few months, we have all been forced to reinvent and come up with our own version of the ‘new and better normal.’ Retailers must to look beyond the basics of surviving and accelerate their plans to ensure they have resilient digital roadmaps in place to stay in the game.

Learn more about Aruba's network and security solutions for retail.