Balancing Online & Offline Shopping
In my capacity of supporting and advising small businesses I’m seeing real struggles in the retail sector in particular, and it’s breaking my heart.
The UK’s high street shops have fallen to their lowest occupancy rate in six years, with 11% now vacant according to retail analyst Springboard. Greater London was hit hardest, where empty retail space rose by almost two-thirds.
Hands tied by lockdown, people turned to online shopping to fill the void as the nation was mostly confined indoors and shops were closed. Even post-lockdown as doors re-opened and shoppers returned, footfall has fallen year-on-year, down by a third in August.
It’s not all doom & gloom. Food & drink sales have increased significantly, furniture and homewares bucked the trend as people invested in their homes, and IT-related sales soared as home working took precedent. Meanwhile, most other high street shops’ first priority has been survival as they try to make up lost ground, with fashion, jewellery and beauty being amongst the most precarious.
High street versus online
Aside from coronavirus restrictions, it’s easy to see why shoppers have gravitated to online. Here are just a few of the main drivers…
1. Vast choice with increasingly diverse ranges and the ability to trawl through products & services quickly with smart search tools online will nearly always trump the high street, where space is limited and physical effort is required to find what you’re looking for.
2. Least effort convenience in the form of following ridiculously easy processes from your sofa (or indeed almost anywhere!) with minimal clicks from search through to checkout make shopping so easy online. Rapid delivery to your door completes the ‘lazy’ and/or ‘time-starved’ shopper experience.
3. Best value has to be offered online. There’s nowhere for online vendors to hide as shoppers religiously make price comparisons. Throw in discount codes, flash sales, multi-buys, repeat purchase rewards etc. and you’ll be aware that online retailers have the full box of ‘manipulators’ at their disposal to keep you spending your hard-earned cash. That’s before the digital marketing tools kick in, from using influencers to deploying persuasive remarketing techniques.
4. Purchasing with confidence having read readily available reviews online is a huge factor in providing instant reassurance for something that you’re about to buy. The power of another’s opinion is incredibly influential.
So how do high street shops fight back? It’s a tough call to compete with online retailers. Balancing lower footfall with the high costs of running physical stores, along with the added demands of creating a Coronavirus safe environment, is tough. But fight they will. Their livelihoods depend on it. Here’s a selection of their counter-offer big hits to consider before reaching for a device to shop online…
1. Personal service goes a long way. Specialist knowledge and advice provided in a welcoming environment with human interaction is without doubt one of the key USP’s of physical shopping. It may be for an occasional big ticket item where the customer is given the royal treatment throughout the process, for a car or a kitchen for example. Alternatively, it could be for frequent purchases made locally with a greengrocer or a butcher where the relationship can last a lifetime.
2. Local jobs are created in abundance by retailers. From large supermarkets to small boutique shops, in reality most of us know the people who work in the shops that are close to us as they live in our communities. Their livelihoods depend on the business owners who provide the jobs, and our custom to generate income.
3. Community fabric is generated to a great extent in our cities, towns and local areas by the line-up of retailers. Communities buzz with life where shops, cafes & restaurants, and bars & pubs are thriving with throngs of happy customers, which is in stark contrast to boarded up premises and meagre footfall. Nobody would opt for the latter by choice.
4. Diversity is a good thing. Big brand names are an essential part of our shopping requirements that usually preside on the busiest parts of any high street. However, the culture of an area is really made up by the independent retail business that provide massive variety, specialism and distinctiveness. They quite literally bring space to life.
In reality most don’t want to lose the high street, but it will indeed die if a healthy balance isn’t struck between online and offline shopping.
Let’s start with some optimism. The full return to school in September has been a welcome move for parents, employers and children alike, providing a long overdue sense of freedom and normality for all. In turn, the prediction is that it will give a timely boost to the economy as workers return to their places of work and start to frequent retail spaces. The Eat Out To Help Out scheme has also provided a well-timed shot in the arm for the hospitality industry, used 64 million times with 84,000 businesses. That said, over 22,000 restaurant jobs and more than 1,500 food outlets have closed so far in 2020, so it’s bittersweet.
In terms of the big picture, there are several major factors coming into play that cast a cautionary shadow as we gallop towards what could be a very different Christmas for many. Firstly, the government’s furlough scheme starts to wind down as we approach October. As I write there are continued calls for an extension to the scheme. Regardless of current concerns about infection rate rises there’s no sign of it being extended. In consequence, consumers are anticipated to be less willing to spend.
Then there’s the refund issue that’s plagued one-in-ten purchasers who’re still to get their money back for items bought during lockdown. The result is that third of people are now unwilling to make a big purchase according to data from Visa - another blow for consumer confidence.
Finally, add in rising unemployment, continued home working and reduced tourism and you’ll see why retailers remain on red alert about their future security.
With reduced income, overheads are the crippler for small businesses. There are fresh calls for government help with the main outgoing, namely rent. The housing ministry’s response to date has been that landlords and tenants should find solutions that work for each other without government intervention. Their argument is that the £160 billion support of rates relief, loans and grants for small businesses is sufficient to protect them.
If unable to pay their rents, otherwise viable businesses will go to the wall, resulting in job losses, empty shops and thus the dreaded ghost high streets. The government’s one notable intervention, giving tenants a stay of execution for non-payment of rent to landlords, comes to an end on 30th September 2020, so it’s only a temporary stay of execution during what could be the toughest ‘make or break’ time for many.
I’ve written this article in an attempt to bring to focus the plight of small business retailers in particular. The stark realities of trying to run a business in the face of stiff online competition and an unpredictable environment dominated by a global pandemic are severe. Online shopping is becoming a more permanent option for many. A study by Finder.com revealed that 1 in 10 Britons, some 5.9 million people, have now vowed to stop shopping in the high street altogether. It’s very sobering.
Don’t underestimate independent retailers though, for they are smart. Increasingly they’ll have an online proposition alongside their offline operation that spreads their risk. For example, my wife’s local hairdresser (cheap plug for Gooseberrysalon.com in Mapperley, Nottingham!) serves the community from a stylish salon, but they also sell a selection of upmarket hair products online that they distribute throughout the UK. Local offline, national online. It dovetails harmoniously.
The most pessimistic talk of the death of the high street. I for one believe that it still has so much to give. If we want the best of both worlds then we have to balance our online and offline shopping demands. We can support both and enjoy what both offer in contrast to each other. There doesn’t have to be ‘one versus the other’. You can use your feet and fingers independently, so do so!
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