‘Digital’ – the high street’s biggest adversary, or secret weapon?

A review of 3 young tech businesses which are working for, and not against, our high streets by Lucy Stainton at Local Data Company.

Headlines referring to the state (or indeed, CRISIS) on the high street are becoming ever more dramatic. Some favourites among my recent google alerts include;

“Brit High St NIGHTMARE: 6,000 shops CLOSE”

“High street crisis hits recession levels as 12000 jobs on the line”

“High Street on its KNEES: Brit retailers at risk of collapse NAMED” 

Largely, this physical retail catastrophe has been blamed on an increasingly digital consumer, deferring to the internet for the purchase of products and services.

This has supposedly created a footfall black hole across GB high streets and shopping centres, rendering physical stores irrelevant. Accepting there is some hyperbole here, it is true to say that alongside the impact of Brexit and more cautious customer spending, the high streets’ key adversary seems to be the proliferation of e-tailers, online shopping and an increasingly digitised consumer.

High street health; the facts

It’s tough, there’s no doubt about that. The number of new high street stores opening in 2017 fell to 4,083, down from 4,534 in 2016, according to recent research compiled by the Local Data Company (LDC) for PwC.

Looking only at multiples (classified as brands with five or more stores nationally), across the top 500 town centres, an average of 11 stores opened on the British high street every day in 2017, down from 12 per day in 2016, and 15 in 2013.

Looking to the independents (across the whole market), we saw 33,010 retailers open in 2017 although closures sat at 34,493. Compared to 2016, there were far fewer openings (32,728) but equally fewer closures (31,933). This puts net change for independent retail across GB at +795 in 2016 compared to -1,483 in 2017.

However, at LDC, we are absolutely seeing signs that the market is fighting back, with an increase of new independent retailers opening stores and certain sub-sectors such as health and beauty, coffee shops and even booksellers seeing significant growth.

Alongside this, there are a number of exciting young digital or tech-led businesses using their digital skills and technology, not to steal customers away from the great British high street, but to help the high street become more accessible and a more exciting place to shop.


A fascinating digital business: Maybe* provides a ‘platform that eliminates the gap between how shoppers want to shop and how retailers are able to connect with them.’ Maybe* was founded on the premise that regardless of the ultimate mode of purchase, a vast number of sales are now in some way digitally influenced.

We see this on our own shopping habits all the time, we might buy in-store but we’ve likely browsed our mobile on the way to work, done some research online or flicked through various social media channels.

The Maybe* platform uses a combination of AI, chatbots and location technology to help retailers and landlords learn about their customers within a geographic reach and deliver a more coherent shopping experience for the consumer across channels.

In addition, Maybe* are also leading a collaborative campaign which supports high street retailers to increase their social media presence. They have been able to link increased levels of social chatter to increases levels of physical footfall.

Maybe*’s CEO Polly Barnfield told me:

“Retail is changing fast, like any industry its a case of adapt or die in today’s technology powered world. The simple fact is consumers are using technology in ways that change how they shop. Retailers need to serve their customers in new and more connected ways. Technology offers a way for retailers to drive massive efficiencies within their business by using the voice of the customer as an asset.

The retail story increasingly needs to highlight the successes of those that are adapting well and showcase how customer-centric thinking can lead to rapid change and business success. We have countless case studies of businesses that have used technology to increase their in-store footfall and sales both online and offline.”

These are just three examples of a growing number of businesses which are inherently techie and web-based though hugely complimentary, and (ultimately champions of ) the British high street.

Retailers and landlords who are doing well in the current market are those who have seemingly embraced their customers’ digital preferences and built this, slowly but surely, into the consumer journey.

Arguably those which haven’t adapted to the digital world need to innovate and sadly each week seems to bring news of casualties of the quickly-evolving retail sector.

Admittedly, there has been an explosion of young technology businesses across this space making it hard for retailers to identify which of these will add value to the brand. But, they are out there and prove that digital doesn’t always have to be the enemy of the high street.

Read the full article on the Local Data Company blog

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