NewStart Feature: Could online shopping save the high street after all?

Freelance journalist Alice Cruickshank discovers how online shoppers could be the solution to falling footfall on British high streets. 

The latest figures paint a worrying picture for the state of Britain’s bricks and mortar retailers. Christmas footfall on British high streets was at its worst since the recession, in line with a steady decline over the past decade.

Meanwhile, data from Barclaycard found Black Friday spending was down 12% in 2018 compared with 2017.

But are things really as bad as they seem for our local shops? Currently, only 18% of purchases in the UK are made online, meaning the vast majority are still made on high streets. Half of all these online sales are made with retailers who also have physical premises, meaning the challenge now facing businesses is not to fight against consumers’ love of digital – instead, they must modernise their approach to retail.

Dave Preston is the founder of Offigo, a mobile app that offers an interactive directory, where local businesses can post their latest deals and events to entice visitors. The company secured £20,000 in funding from HM Land Registry’s Geovation competition in February to roll out the platform across Lancashire, following a successful pilot in Blackpool when over 100,000 people viewed 1.4 million pages of local offers and events.

‘It’s not that shoppers don’t want to shop on the high street,’ argues Preston. ‘I think what we’ve seen is a very quick movement of everything going onto phones. It is one of the fastest movements of any shift of consumer thinking or how we do things in our daily lives.

‘What hasn’t been fast enough is businesses making sure that they are online and that shoppers can find them. Everyone is blaming businesses rates and lack of car parking for a decline in the high street, but the reality is shoppers can’t see a reason to come shop or eat in local establishments.’

Preston likens the smartphone revolution to the impact of chip and pin payments on retailers. He says: ‘The only time small businesses were reacting to chip and pin was when people were walking in and then walking out again because they couldn’t pay by card.

‘The problem with the high street right now is they are not seeing people walk in then walk out – they are just not seeing people arrive.’

The current struggle of British high streets is exemplified by the Midlands city of Wolverhampton, which has been particularly affected by big retail closures such as Woolworths and House of Fraser. However, the local council has created a detailed regeneration plan based around digital innovation, and the city has been selected as one of the UK’s 5G testbeds. The council is determined that no one will be left behind in the digital transformation.

‘Taking business online comes easier to some than others,’ says Isobel Woods, head of enterprise at Wolverhampton Council. ‘We recognise that retailers have had a number of external challenges and we are trying to support them.

‘What positives an online presence can bring our physical retailers is very much a question our leaders have asked, and a challenge quite a few people have raised with us. To me, bridging the online gap is recognition of how consumers now shop. The genie is out the bottle of shopping online.’

To help their small retailers grow, Wolverhampton is currently involved in a city-wide partnership with online retail marketplace eBay. Local businesses involved in the programme are provided with a year of dedicated support and the technical knowledge to create an online platform and reach new markets via the website.

The move to encourage local businesses online is a model eBay has already developed to great success in cities across America, and Wolverhampton is the first location to be involved in the scheme in the UK. Training for retailers began in November of this year, and business owners are already reporting sales increases of 33% on average.

‘It’s about how do online and our high street compliment each other, rather than either or,’ says Woods. ‘We just need to think about retail offerings in terms of what having a physical space can bring and why people would still come to our city centre and shop.’

So how can retailers drive online shoppers into physical stores? This is an issue tech company NearSt believe they have the potential to solve. NearSt’s technology connects to retailers’ PoS systems to provide customers searching for a product online with the ability to see stock in nearby shops. The company has just secured a partnership with Google, which means their solution is set to be nationwide.

NearSt co-founder Nick Brackenbury explains why he thinks this innovation is long overdue: ‘If you, for example, search for a flight, Google will show you flight information directly, or if you search for a restaurant Google will show you where to book it. Retail is completely absent from this.

‘If you search for something Google will show you a link to a retailer’s website where you can go and buy. What we’re doing is feeding our data into Google search so that when you want to purchase something you don’t just see online results.’

NearSt’s optimistic ambition to link high street retailers with online searchers could be seen as a few years too late, as Amazon trials same-day and drone delivery. However, Brackenbury argues shoppers still have reason to step into shops.

‘Convenience isn’t just about ‘do I have to get up or can I get it delivered’. It’s about “how does it fit into my everyday life”?’ explains Brackenbury. ‘Getting items delivered may seem low-friction, but if you get a red missed parcel slip and you’ve got to go to the depot that’s half an hour away, or it gets lost in the office mail, or you’ve got to pay extra for delivery when you just knew it was on the walk to your tube stop, then suddenly that option becomes incredibly convenient.’

Online shopping may have become the bogeyman of our high streets in recent years, but what Offigo, NearSt and eBay’s retail initiative have in common is a belief in the Internet’s ability to help businesses grow and keep pace with today’s digitally savvy shoppers.

‘We’re really not ones to say the high street needs “saving,”‘ says Brackenbury. ‘There’s so much goodness there, it just needs a little bit of evolution to adapt to how people shop and buy things.’

Alice Cruickshank
Freelance journalist


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