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For many years now high streets across the UK have been under pressure from the consumer shift in spending from physical shops to online. Tighter household incomes and increases in business rates have seen the likes of big players such as Woolworths, BHS, Comet and Blockbusters all call time on trading.

It seems the superior efficiency of online shopping has eclipsed the whole social event of ‘shopping trips’. The fun of browsing high street stores and the joy of discovery has been diminished as today’s shopping experience is becoming increasingly premeditated. After all, why venture out to the high street when with one click a new pair of jeans comes direct to you?

So, is the high street truly a dead man walking or will the physical interaction between consumer and product prove too important to write off? If new life is to be breathed back into the high street retailers must recognise the importance of their USP and embrace the experiential element of physical discovery.

House of Fraser is certainly on board with reinventing their shopping experience. The recent appointment of Alex Williamson as its new chief executive may have raised a few industry eyebrows but therein lays the sharpness of their controversial hiring and pioneering strategy.

Williamson is the former chief executive of Goodwood, renowned for show-stopping events including the Festival of Speed motorsports weekend and horse racing at Glorious Goodwood. In support of Williamson’s appointment, HOF chairman Frank Slevin, himself not a retailer by trade, told Retail Week magazine “This reflects how important it is to us to deliver a customer experience-led proposition. It’s about delivering an exciting, compelling lifestyle-led experience, which, if we are going to transform department store retail, we need to be embracing”.

A survival strategy focused on ‘experiences not just selling the product, experiences being the product’ could herald more entertaining retail theatre and shopper reengaging with the fun of a ‘day out’. Of course, this won’t ever happen in isolation of e-commerce, but it may mean we’ll see more and more figureheads from the hospitality and leisure industry injecting their CX expertise into retail and this could well bring about the energy boost high streets need in order to compete and survive in a post-digital world.

Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at The NPD Group thinks ‘This is a terrific time for new ideas and unusual thinking. In particular, the coming months are likely to see innovations both technological and experiential, and these changes will affect how consumers interact with retailers’**

In the wake of declining department store sales, new retail ideas such as the innovative showroom of men’s US clothing company Bonobos are proving profitable. Bonobos opened a store that only houses product to look at. It has no stock to buy and requires customers to complete their purchase online. Nick Hodson, principal at Strategy& said, “The Bonobos model, I think, is pretty compelling. Bonobos built a supply chain to supply houses, not stores, and they decided to build showrooms as baskets.”

Hotel Chocolat, whose high street presence now includes stores, restaurants and cafés, despite beginning life as an ‘online-only’ retailer in 1997, believes in bringing the indulgent experience of their chocolate to life. Their website proudly states that their cafés are “Yet another innovation: bringing together cocoa-growing, chocolate making, drinks and food, we’re reviving the ritual of drinking chocolate alongside a carefully curated menu of tea, coffee and snacks including our moreish brownies” adding “Our Schools of Chocolate take the appreciation of chocolate to a new level, teaching you to create your own chocolate with our Bean-to-Bar Experiences”.

If the mission is to delight shoppers and the Hotel Chocolat expansion is anything to go by, then more varied cross category offerings could hold the ‘added value’ key. Imagine you’re in a men’s clothing store, your ‘image’ is front of mind and you spot the barbers chair next to the changing room. It’s not a huge leap of faith to decide to get a haircut or beard trim while you’re shopping for new jeans? After all, both make you look and feel great!

So just maybe, if high street retail does focus more on the pleasures and satisfaction of real, touchable shopping experiences, and the inevitable movement of etailers opening physical stores continues to grow, the high street could actually end up teaching the digital world a thing or two about the delight of physical product discovery.



* There were 15 shop closures a day across the UK in the first half of 2016 and the number of new openings has fallen to the lowest level for five years, according to a report that highlights the pressure on the retail sector.


** On the plus side, this is a terrific time for new ideas and unusual thinking: In particular, the coming months are likely to see innovations both technological and experiential, and these changes will affect how consumers interact with retailers Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at The NPD Group

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