Why experience and choice are key to bringing brick-and-mortar retail into the digital age

By PFS Europe’s Christophe Pecoraro

In April, we saw UK retail sales surge as non-essential stores across England opened for the first time after months of ongoing lockdown restrictions. In a week, high street footfall doubled. In fact, shoppers were spotted queuing from 7am outside brands such as Primark, Zara and TKMaxx in preparation for the highly anticipated high street homecoming.

It is safe to say that, while online shopping became the norm over the last year, consumers missed some of the more tangible in-store experiences. According to PFS’ recent research report Overcoming the Physical Disconnect, 80 per cent of consumers revealed they missed at least one aspect of the shopping experience while shopping online. This has led to as many as 40 per cent of consumers claiming that their loyalty will revert to retail brands that have a high street presence in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder

It might have been out of action for a considerable time, but absence truly has made shoppers’ hearts grow fonder in the case of the high street. In PFS’ research, almost half (49 per cent) of consumers missed the social aspect of shopping during the lockdowns and deem it a leisure activity.

Unfortunately, nostalgia on its own is not enough to save the high street for good. Experts predict that the novelty will eventually wear off, with more than one-thirds (34 per cent) of consumers expected to return to online shopping. This figure rises to 39 per cent among millennials and almost half (45 per cent) of the Gen Z population while 49 per cent of both demographics said they will continue to do the majority of their shopping online.

Keeping up in a digital-first age

To remain relevant, high street retailers must rapidly adapt – taking the aspects missed most by consumers during the lockdown, maximising them and using them to their advantage. The shift from bricks to clicks doesn’t necessarily spell the end for the high street – but rather a challenge to the core functions of the physical store.

Rather than competing with the online realm, brands should instead ensure they balance the two by taking an experience-based approach. For Gen Z in particular, more than one-third (37 per cent) expect retailers to offer more of an in-store ‘experience’ than they did before lockdown. This may include hosted events, catwalks, product launches, personalised makeovers, or even more quirky activities such as treasure hunts.

The White Company presents a great example of how the gap can be bridged by allowing customers to shop live online by connecting to a one-way video call with in-store experts, where they can explore products as if they were visiting a store. John Lewis has also been championing experientialism by introducing a number of virtual experiences recently to help support consumers’ changing lifestyles, including virtual sewing and cooking classes.

The drivers of success

It’s now increasingly apparent that retailers deliver a better customer experience when brick-and-mortar and e-commerce operations work hand in glove. When restricted to shopping online, consumers craved the in-store experience, but when they want convenience and a ‘one click’ purchase, they turn online. This is where omnichannel retail comes to the fore – putting brands in the strongest position to tick all the boxes and consumer demands. By converting physical stores into browsing locations to try, test, and experience while positioning e-commerce as a transactional platform, retailers are more likely to meet future shopping requirements.

Underpinning this needs to be an effective fulfilment strategy and intuitive distribution network. Investment in functions such as buy-online, pick-up in-store (BOPIS), buy online and ship-from-store (BOSS), as well as effective order management systems and distributed order management (DOM) solutions can help to better bridge the gap between both channels.

Turning the tables

By doubling up existing high street stores as mini distribution centres to capitalise on that facility as a stock holder, retailers can make every square foot work for its money. From this position of strength and agility, the idea of collect in-store, ship-from-store, shop in-store, or direct delivery can all be opened up from just one location.

Ultimately, to remain competitive, retailers need to be armed and ready to respond to a new ‘view-in-store and ship to home’ model, as consumers favour cost, convenience and experientialism over other needs. By meeting these changing priorities, brands and retailers can create stronger customer relationships than ever before, while maintaining profitable physical retail spaces that turn the tables on their e-commerce-only competitors. The high street is not lost, but experience and choice will be the key to its future.

Christophe Pecoraro is managing director at PFS Europe, a global commerce agency supporting e-commerce fulfilment operations for DTC and B2B channels.