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Clicks and mortar: the evolution of our high streets

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I’d like to paint you a picture. Think about the days of small, traditional shops on our high street – where you couldn’t get everything you needed from one place, and would go to each separate butcher, baker and candlestick maker. Of course, in some places, this never went away - but for many of us, this kind of high street is now in black and white (or even sepia).

Our high streets have changed so much in the past decade, and face a constant challenge to evolve. First came the large shops, and the small corner shops had to compete with brands and chain stores.


Then came the sound of car engines as hypermarkets and out-of-town shopping malls sprung up on the outskirts.

Now, pressure for change in the industry comes from internet and online shopping, affecting both small and large retailers alike.

Shopping malls took around fifty years to develop fully, but online shopping has blossomed in around ten, and currently represents 12 per cent of all retail sales. It’s arguably still in its early stages, and is affecting retailers of all sizes.


The UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) has released a new report which examines a range of challenges faced by the retail sector. It looks particularly at issues to do with skills, and how retailers can overcome these to boost the sector’s growth and productivity.

The research finds that one of the biggest drivers of change in retail is the evolution of technology, and one of the main skills-based challenges is recruiting staff with digital marketing skills to tap into fast-changing tech and consumer behaviour. Retailers need employees who can use some of the big data generated by customer transactions, and use it to optimise their offer.

At one level, that includes analysing information from store cards and using it to target offers and discounts. It can also be managing data from online traffic and social media, to raise brand awareness and create campaigns.

But how far could retailers take this if they attracted and developed more digital-savvy workers? The UKCES report found a need to develop “multi-channel” shopping, with a seamless blend between online and offline experiences.


Where will these changes lead? And how will retailers respond in future? The report’s conclusions got me thinking. What if…

  • We can already ‘check in’ at stores. Could retailers take this further by automatically checking you in when you walk through the door, and personalise content on screens based on your shopping history or online browsing?
  • Rather than having ‘online-only’ special offers, could stores operate ‘multi-mode’ offers? You would be rewarded for coming to the store in person to collect items, and shops would benefit as you then browse the store and buy other products.
  • Based on your shopping habits, you could book a time slot at a supermarket – much like booking an online shopping slot – and arrive to find a trolley filled with your regular items. You get the time-saving convenience of online shopping for basics, but can browse the store for other items and luxuries.
  • There are lots of store-specific shopping apps, but could retailers develop something together at a local level? You could input your interests to the app, and it would display a map of your local high street, with cross-store offers. Buy something from one store, get a discount at another.

The retail sector is once again under pressure to adapt to huge changes. This time they’re technology-based. If retailers recruit and upskill they can exploit new technologies, and transform the high street once again - ready for the next challenge.

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