High street retailers are axing jobs with many more expected to follow suit over the coming months. But how can technology prevent brands from disappearing? Ferdinand Reynolds, Regional Manager at Go Instore, looks at why technology will be essential for retailers to survive in today’s retail landscape.
Over recent months, the retail industry has experienced significant change. As the UK went into lockdown, high streets up and down the country became ghost towns as non-essential stores were forced to pull down their shutters to keep staff and customers safe. And since the retail sector re-opened, household brands including Boots and John Lewis have already announced they will be closing stores, and footfall figures are yet to recover.
In an attempt to survive with the limited number of shoppers returning to stores, brands and retailers have been strong-armed into implementing five years’ worth of future digital strategies in a matter of five months. The results of this firmware frenzy are yet to be published, but in this bleak retail landscape, even the faintest sales uptick justifies whatever digital strategy lays claim to it.
However, many retailers still seem to be missing the point. Technology continues to be perceived as a threat to humans and brick-and-mortar retail, and retailers think that the choice is to tech, or not to tech, and that there is really no grey area.
Technology is no longer a nice to have
With a sudden record drop in UK business activity, digital solutions are no longer a luxury; they’ve become a necessity. But often in-store staff see their online platform as a competitor – someone who is taking away their commission. We have to move away from these silos and start getting store colleagues and associates involved in online sales and start paying them for those transactions for online and physical retail to work seamlessly alongside each other.
Ahead of the COVID-19 crisis, online sales accounted for only 20% of total sales. The lockdown has boosted this figure and it is only expected to increase as shoppers continue to manifest their digital shopping behaviours. However, there are innumerable processes where humans come second to computers and when it comes to decision making, there is almost always some human input.
As those decisions become more consequential, more human input is required. And the most consequential decision that determines if a brand or retailer sinks or swims is, of course, whether or not to buy. As that purchase becomes more expensive, complex, or, emotional, the necessity for a human touch only increases.
Invest in the human touch
Brands and retailers are aware of the importance of the human touch. It’s the reason they hire the most talented salespeople and make them feel valued and valuable by offering commission and glamourous titles like “adviser” or “agent.”
Why, then, does this consideration pale into insignificance when the retail channel in question is online?
It’s a little odd that the widest sales channel gets the least human touch. A website is an incredible asset – what physical showroom has every product on display; 24-hour accessibility; metadata revealing how quickly each SKU can be inside each customer’s living room; and the ability to service a multilingual, international client-base?
Imagine such a showroom did exist, and now imagine making a conscious decision not to let highly trained, knowledgeable sales staff anywhere near it.
Retailers that employ quality sales staff have already made the concession that those people are fundamental to the success of their business. Brands that build exciting and enticing websites at vast expense do so on the presupposition that the organisation will benefit as a result. Companies that do both and make no effort to reconcile the two will be feeling the heat a little bit at the moment.
Delivering the in-store experience
Buying and selling are uniquely human behaviours. As the saying goes, “people buy from people.”
Now is a great time for retailers to streamline; to improve operational efficiency; and to ensure their online platform is able to provide an optimised customer experience to continue to drive sales. But in order to do so, it all comes back down to a conversation between two people.
The retail sector will continue to evolve to keep up with customer needs and expectations but the ability to deliver that in-store experience via online channels will differentiate brands from their competitors, and those will be the retailers we will continue to see on the high street for years to come.
By Ferdinand Reynolds