Tag Archives: high street

The future of retail and the high street

Over 3 months since my last blog, because… reasons. Futurologists are often asked about the future of the high street and the future of retail, obviously strongly connected, because the high street as we knew it not long ago has already changed hugely and yet seemingly always under imminent threat of extinction. I have blogged on it, but am shocked that my last one was a few years ago, so time for an update I guess, especially with the news today that Debenhams may be closing 50 of its stores.

A few old blogs that are still relevant:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/01/16/the-future-of-high-street-survival-the-6s-guide/

Just one of those Ss stood for Surprise, or serendipity if you prefer. The surprise aisles in Lidl and Aldi are among the biggest reasons for their success. There’s always something you never knew you wanted at a price you can’t resist, so they do well. Good luck to them! Not knowing what you want before you see it explains much of the attraction of charity shops too, it isn’t all about price.

My other Ss are also still proven well founded (socialising (including coffee shops & Facebook clubs), synergy (between online and physical), service, special, and ‘suck and see’ (try it out before you buy)).

Another blog addressed the balance between high street and out of town centres:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/03/01/out-of-town-centres-are-the-most-viable-future-for-physical-shops/

A more recent one on possible reversal of urbanisation in the further future is also a bit relevant:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2018/06/13/will-urbanization-continue-or-will-we-soon-reach-peak-city/

So, updating then…

Retailers all know that they must have an online presence, but it’s still surprising how little effort they put into making their IT work. I experimented with setting up accounts with some of the big retailers and the experience is shocking. This week, I tried to set up an Argos account, but couldn’t get any further than typing my email address and hitting continue, at which point I just got a message ‘unknown error’. I tried it from various links from emails and their Sainsbury’s owner site, and tried a few times on different days, same result. How can they win new customers online if nobody can set an account up? Does nobody actually ever check whether it still works?

I successfully set up a Next account ages ago, but never used it because it wouldn’t let me edit any of my data such as whether I wanted junk mail by various channels, or even how to spell my name (I’d used my initials ID and it insisted on calling me Id), the options either didn’t exist or were greyed out. I could phone up but why bother? A month ago it stopped working for several days, after which time it eventually said I didn’t have one. So I assumed it had evaporated during their IT changes due to never being used and set it up again, and it recovered all my data from its previous existence. I still won’t use it because it calls me Id, and I can’t change it to I D or even ID.

Very has the same IT trouble, can’t edit your name away from Id, and can’t change your preferences for receiving junk mail, but I only set it up as a test so don’t care.

These companies are among the biggest. If they can’t get it right, who can? I did try a few smaller ones to see if they were better but still got a mixture of some successes and some ‘unknown errors’, 404 messages and so on.

By contrast, I’ve never had an IT-related problem with Amazon or eBay and only a few minor ones with 7dayshop. So I shop there and ignore most other shops. They employ competent IT staff in sufficient numbers to make it work, and they thrive (though perhaps not as much due to IT as tax and rates advantages). Those shops whose poor IT annoys their customers enough  to go elsewhere deserve to do badly. 

Websites and apps are today’s platforms for extending high street presence into cyberspace. Augmented reality will provide those companies who are up to the job with massively superior platforms to do that. The web arose from converging just computing and telecoms. Augmented reality converges the whole of the real and virtual universes. Overlaying absolutely any form of computer-generated imagery, data or media onto anything in the real world, streets could be extra art gallery space, space for computer games, enabling digital architecture and avatar replacement of strangers, adding digital fauna and flora and aliens and cartoon characters and celebs and AI avatars anywhere they may be desired, making enticing imaginary worlds that add to the fun of actually going into town.

It won’t just be text, graphics and audio. Various haptic interfaces already exist, but soon active skin will link our peripheral nervous systems to our IT, allowing sensations to be recorded, associated with whatever caused them, and then reproducing those same sensations when something similar happens virtually. Tiny devices in among skin cells could simply record and reproduce the nerve signals. Each hand only generates about 2Mbit/s of data, only a little more than a basic TV channel, so it should be no big problem handling the data.

AI has really moved on since 2013 too. It’s still far from perfect, but you can use fairly normal English to ask an AI to find you something and it often will, so it’s heading in the right direction. Soon, with 3D life-sized augmented or virtual reality avatars to interface with, they’ll be more in touch with our emotional responses when we browse, getting signals from wearables and active skin, face and gesture recognition, gaze direction, blood flow, heart rates etc. An abundance of data will help future AI’s learn more and more about us and our desires and preferences until they can genuinely act as our agents, (as we already realised was the far future by 1990). It’s only a matter of time. In my estimation, AI is progressing about 30-40% more slowly than it ought, (I won’t write about why I think that is here) but it will still get there. As will VR and AR and active skin and active contact lenses, and various other also long overdue techs.

AI online will also be less impressed by all the distractions and adds humans are exposed to.  Functional shopping will be liable to AI substitution but recreational, social, emotional shopping will still be done by people themselves. 

AI links well to robotics, and at some point, robots will go out and do some of our shopping for us. They will have very different customer characteristics and ergonomic needs, and may be better suited to picking up from bleak warehouses than attractive high street stores with ‘surprise’ aisles.

Drone delivery is much spoken about but I don’t think it has a big future for domestic use except in areas with large back gardens and no pets, or mischievous kids. It will work well for rapid delivery to business delivery bays that have appropriate landing areas and H&S policies.

3D printing is much over-hyped, but will eventually replace a small proportion of shopping by home manufacture, or local 3D print shop for more complex production.

Self-driving and driverless cars will greatly reduce or even eliminate the huge problem of congestion that deters people from going to town, as well as eliminating the much-too-high cost of parking, but without incurring the current public transport penalties of waiting in poor weather, poor stop locations, lateness, sluggishness, discomfort, overcrowding, security, and exposure to disease and unwanted social pests. By collecting from home and delivering all the way to the destination in a suitable vehicle, they will also improve social inclusion for older and disabled people. Driverless cars using smart infrastructure could be achieved many times cheaper and earlier (given the will) than current self-driving approaches, but at the expense of virtually eliminating the car industry that hopes to continue to sell expensive cars that happen to self-drive rather the cheap ($300-500) public pods made of fibreglass that can be made without any need for engines, batteries, AI or sensors and would instead be propelled on factory-made and rapidly installed linear induction mats that switch each pod at each junction rather like routers switch internet data packets.

With easier and faster access to a high street that is made far more attractive by imaginative use of AR, companies sticking to the 6S guide would still be able to attract customers into the far future. While there, they would be able to browse much wider range of stock. A garment wouldn’t need to be stocked with lots of each size, but could just have one of a few sizes for people to see if the like the fabric etc before scanning it with an app or taking it to a till with their laser-scanned body measurements, to have it made in their exact size for delivery later by a rapid personalisation manufacturing industry. As well as having more stock present physically, augmented reality can also replace all the aisles of goods the customer isn’t interested in with ones that hold things available for online purchase from that shop or their allies, adding another virtual-physical synergy to improve revenue potential. Even a small store could potentially hold a vast range of stock to buy in an exciting and attractive personalized environment.

I guess I could go into far future services associated with shops, such as customising VR kit to people’s nervous systems, providing recharging for android shoppers or whatever, but this is already long enough.

So the high street isn’t going to become just coffee shops and charities. Even if some existing retailers don’t up their games and go under, many new ones will appear that understand how to use new technology to good effect, and they will make good profits from both high streets and out of town centres.

 

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Out of town centres are the most viable future for physical shops

So the government’s ‘retail guru’ Mary Portas has said that some high streets are doomed and should be turned over to other uses. I don’t share the government’s high regard for her but I do agree that it is time to reconsider the structure and location of retailing.

As usual, I’ll highlight the problem first, then suggest the solution.

I live on the edge of Ipswich. The area is a nice place to live but I rarely go into town. To be absolutely honest, I try hard NOT to go into town. I am sure they don’t want me there anyway, since they try hard to deter me from going in.

In the last year, I’ve been to radio studio three times, the cinema once (that involved over 20 mins looking for a car parking space nearby, eventually parking much further away and walking), and shopping once, dragged kicking and screaming, having to wade through a lake in a waiting-for-brown-field-development car park on our side of town that we used to avoid the trauma of traffic congestion. The planners were presented with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to fix a lot of the congestion when they started redevelopment of the docks, but instead actually worsened the traffic routing and created even more congestion.  I don’t know why they did that, but they did. You could say that Ipswich had been a one-horse town, but the planners shot the horse. Ipswich could have been a great deal better with just a bit of thought. Having said that, there are far worse places, far worse. I’m probably just a troglodyte that owns a shaver.

Like many other towns, a lot of the shops are closing. The issues are familiar all over the country. Congestion, lack of parking and high parking fees compete with easy home delivery from online purchases. Congestion is not the same as throughput, and even though it seems busy, town centre businesses obviously aren’t getting enough business or they wouldn’t be closing. 

I’ve written on the future of high street retailing before:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/01/16/the-future-of-high-street-survival-the-6s-guide/

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2011/03/03/future-high-street-retailing/

Online shopping offers formidable competition, and in those previous blogs I looked at what can be done to compete . This time, I want to concentrate on the location of shops.

Sometimes I just want to get out of the house and go shopping. If I don’t have anything particularly in mind, I go to Woodbridge and Felixstowe, mainly because they are just as fast to get to as Ipswich, but prettier, it is far easier to park there, and parking doesn’t cost a fortune. If the trip is purely functional, I will often end up at a retail park. They are easy to get to, I can park close to the shop I want, and it is free.

There has been huge resistance to out of town shopping centres over the last decade or two because they obviously take customers away from town centres, and involve driving so were considered environmentally unfriendly. Let’s look at both of those in the light of the new reality.

Big retail parks are mostly full of enormous warehouse stores that offer a purely functional destination. Some are selling stuff that is best suited to online purchasing and the less competitive ones are likely to die or shrink. As they free up the big warehouses, these could be attractively redesigned to house many shops that once lived in town centres. So when someone goes to their local retail park to look at furniture or DIY kit, they might well spend an extra while wandering through some interesting small shops.  The big stores would act as a functional magnet, and the small shops would add interest and serendipity, making a boring functional trip into an enjoyable experience that could fund a flourishing retail community. Provided the rents and rates are OK, and that parking is free and abundant, this could work well as a model for high street condensation and relocation. It could even rejuvenate physical retailing, especially small businesses.

As for environmental impact, being stuck in a traffic jam is far more polluting than driving along unimpeded. Out of town centres can be placed to work well with the local human geography and roads so that traffic can flow smoothly and make less pollution. Parking must be adequate to cope with latent demand or that will drive potential customers onto the net, or force them to drive round and round car parks looking for places, polluting as they go. People who live in town centres generally have ready access to public transport and it is just as easy to aim routes at out of town centres as it is to town centres. If the old high streets are re-purposed, then retail business would just be moved to more viable locations where they could flourish.

If we move shopping out of town, almost everyone benefits. People living out of town would not have to go into town to shop, and congestion there would probably fall so that it would be less traumatic when they do have to go in for other reasons. People living in towns would still have public transport access to shops, just in different locations. The few who live within easy walking distance of town shopping centres would suffer having to go further to shops, but they will suffer their loss anyway if they don’t move.

For people out of town, well designed out-of-town shopping centres offer the potential of reinvention and to rekindle the joy of shopping. For townies, the alternative to shops that are a bit further away might be to have no shops at all. That’s probably the new reality and we either embrace it or suffer it. Government and planners should recognise that and make policy accordingly.

 

The future of high street survival: the 6S guide

I do occasionally write a blog relevant to the news of the day rather than just what takes my fancy. The news today, apart from Tesco horse burgers, is the closure of another national retail chain, HMV. I learned on the news that HMV stands for ‘His Master’s Voice’. Never knew that, I thought it was a 90s chain. ‘His master’s voice’ is immediately recognisable as an ancient and trusted brand. HMV has a nice up to date logo  though so maybe their marketing department though that is more important to appeal to a generation that has mostly never bought a CD. HMV also didn’t bother to explain the difference to shoppers between what you get when you buy a CD v what you get when you download, i.e proper ownership and rights v part and temporary ownership and severely restricted rights. Still, too late for them to ask me my views. They’re dead.

Some high street shops make excellent use of the synergy between a physical outlet and web presence. As we progress into the age of augmented reality, that will become ever more important. People will expect to be able to buy via either route but still use the facilities offered by the shop. AR also adds huge potential to add virtual architecture, décor  themes and gaming. Reserving online for high street collection, or buying for home delivery while in the shop are well established; less so is using 3d printing to accessorise outfits, or laser scanning body shape so that you can use stores as try-on outlets. These are starting to generate presence and will grow in importance. And some shops are getting extra income by acting as drop off centres for other companies, so that people can collect things on their way home from work, a big thing for the many households where nobody is at home during the day to receive goods.

Socialising is best done face to face, and shopping is a social experience too. Coffee shops and restaurants have been familiar in shops for decades now, but shops could make far more advantage of social networking to offer meeting and hanging out facilities for people using social networks and who share something in common related to the theme of the shop. Clothes shops could offer fashion related events, gadget shops demos of up and coming products, and so on. Establishing shops as something more than just places to buy increases their relevance and brand loyalty, hence survival chances. So, synergy, socialising. I feel a ‘6S guide to high street survival’ coming on.

Next S:  service. This should be obvious, and most shops do appreciate the importance of differentiating on service quality. While it used to be a concern that people would use the shop for service and then buy online, having good web presence and competitiveness anyway makes this less problematic. There is nothing wrong with having some premium services and charging for them in addition to free basic service. Some premium services could even be provided for competitor web sites with no high street presence, making a potential income stream even when people do use competitors. Opticians doing prescriptions for online glasses sellers, or clothes shops providing paid measuring services are good examples where this already occurs. Seeing competitors as potential market opportunities rather than just as threats is key.

Suck and see. OK, a bit contrived to get the S this time, but shops are starting to do it. The Apple Store is a good example, where you try it out in the shop but the purchase is essentially an online one. Clothes shops can let you try a garment on and then order it in your size for home delivery, using rapid customisation manufacturing and delivery systems.

Surprise is another one. It is easy to shop online when you know what you want. If you don’t, shops can offer that mixture of expected and unexpected to make you want to visit. Call it serendipity if you prefer.

The 6th S is for Special. This could be customisation or personalisation of products for customers, or it could be an extended relationship with customers in terms of pampering of regular customers, after-sales services, advice, affiliate programs, belonging to social groups… People want to feel special.

There you have it. Service, surprise, suck-and-see, socialisation, synergy and special. The 6S guide to high street survival. 🙂