Can the relentless downward trend in retail footfall be slowed or even stopped, as shoppers choose to shop online instead?
The number of people out shopping in the UK in November dropped to its lowest level since the 2008 recession, retail research says. Footfall at shopping centres, retail parks and High Streets fell 3.2%, according to analysis firm Springboard, and is now at its lowest level since the 2008 recession.
The just-published Timpson Report suggests the way forward is to solve the hygiene issues of cleanliness and graffiti, as well as improving the obvious parking problems. It recommends an ‘Upside Down Government’ approach, i.e. providing help on a town by town basis, enabling local leaders to design future town centres that recreate a community hub.
Sir John Thompson, who chaired the panel, interestingly states:
“I have learnt, from my own business, that the best way to get things done is to give people on the front line the freedom to get on with the job in the way they know best.”
UK retailers need to take this advice, and focus on what they can do to lessen or eradicate the impact that footfall decline has on them personally. Sir John’s ‘freedom within a framework’ advice must be considered as the blueprint for retailers aiming to buck the trend and increase sales in this challenging environment.
It is possible to buck this trend. And here’s how: by providing a quality of customer experience that offers a level of personal service and expertise in-store that you just can’t get online.
The internet will undeniably continue to do what it does well - to deliver a wide and searchable range of products at competitive prices. If customers choose to find the products they want unaided, then they’re clearly better off doing this online.
But even the online retail colossus Amazon recognises the need for bricks and mortar as it develops its retail presence, albeit in a format we have never seen before, with Amazon Go designed around cashier-less retailing. What’s interesting is that as they’ve fine-tuned the model, they’ve put more support staff back in store. Because the importance of human interaction cannot be underestimated.
Bricks and mortar retailers must compete differently from online. They have to offer expertise - and education too – that’s only available by visiting a store. This involves selling probably a narrow range of excellent products, with good pricing and exceptional service. Timpson and Richer Sounds are renowned for offering this type of specialisation.
Most customers want some help with larger or less unfamiliar purchases. Recommendations from expert store staff are always useful.
"This is because people want guidance in their ‘buyer’s journey’. It’s said that people buy for only two reasons: either to solve a problem or feel better (sometimes both at once). We all want the reassurance that our proposed purchase will tick that box, meet that need," Jill Spencer.
So, the help of friendly and informed sales assistant is invaluable. It makes the visit memorable too. In fact, any helpful in-store information will assist in shaping and improving the customer experience, whether it’s a product demo or a free sample. Build A Bear and Lush are great examples of retailers that create theatre around the experience for their customers.
Some thoughts for retailers to consider further in their planning:
- How can you add value to the instore experience? You must differentiate the bricks and mortar from the online experience, to make it more informative, helpful and enjoyable
- What extra training do your staff need? How knowledgeable (and helpful) are they about the products and services you sell? Staff can be either your Achilles heel or the champions of your business. Which one, depends on the quality of your training and HR in action
- What ‘props’ do you need: Consider on-site demonstrations and theatre. Perhaps product comparison charts, or engaging leaflets to take away. Combining both a searchable online database with a good in-store experience should be in your plan
- Measure, measure, measure: The only way to find out whether and where you’re succeeding in terms of delivering your brand promise is with a mystery shopper CX programme. Mystery shoppers give you the feedback you need to understand whether the experience that you planned is the one your customers really get. Because it is the ‘match with reality’ where the best plan can unravel.
The starting point is to measure today’s customer experience, so you can benchmark it - and also identify the areas, with guidance, where you can make immediate improvements.
2019 is the year of retail disruption make sure you are well placed to buck the trend!
President MSPA Europe/Africa