Earlier this month, news broke that SEARS, once a mainstay in the malls of America, had filed for bankruptcy. It was the usual story: a failure to move with the times and increased competition from online firms, Amazon chief among them.
As yet another administrator rolled out the usual spiel about a retailing giant failing to adapt and evolve in a digital age, I started thinking. What exactly do they mean by this? Is it as simple as making sure your ecommerce offering and website doesn’t suck?
Is it about *marketing buzzword klaxon* an omnichannel approach? Is it true that they just can’t cope with the might of Amazon?
Before I made the move to content and digital marketing (every young boy’s dream, right?), I spent several years managing a store for one of the UK’s biggest shoe retailers, so this clash between the traditional high street and ecommerce has always interested me. How will brands adapt and survive? What does the high street of 2025 look like? Why do I love ‘click and collect’ so much?
At Pull, we’re especially concerned with where brand and technology meet. So, I decided to have a look at whether new technologies will spell the end of the high-street and what changing user habits mean for the future of commerce, online and offline.
Social Shopping & New Ways to Discover Products
Pinterest. Instagram. YouTube. Social networks, particularly those more visual ones, have always driven product discovery. Whether it’s users following brands they’re familiar with, algorithms designed to serve them similar content or increasingly sophisticated advertising products and targeting options, social networks had made it easy and cost effective to reach new and existing customers.
But, the challenge for retailers has always been trying to convert these views into cold, hard cash. Instagram is a case in point - does anything stop an impulse purchase in its tracks more than the words ‘link in bio’?
But. Retailers rejoice. The winds of change are blowing. The social networks have always known they’re on to a money spinner, working hard to develop new, easier ways for consumers to get their hands on your goods. First, Instagram rolled out its shopping feature to businesses, allowing them to directly tag products in their images. Users clicking on the tags are served a product name and price, which can then be followed through to the site where the purchase is complete. Not perfect, but a move in the right direction.
Then, earlier this year, rumours began to swirl that Instagram were working on a dedicated shopping app. According to The Verge
, the app would allow users to browse collections of goods from companies they follow and, most importantly, purchase them in-app. While Instagram have yet to respond to the rumours, it did add a ‘shopping’ tab to the Explore section of the app recently.
Of course, there’s an obvious problem with this sort of stand-alone social shopping app. It’s great for users who have a clear purchase intent or are looking for something specific - ‘brown boots’ for example - but this moves away from what those channels like Pinterest and Instagram do well; allowing users to discover stuff they didn’t previously know they wanted! Convincing people to just use the app when they maybe aren’t in that stage of a purchase journey is going to be the challenge.
I hope that doesn’t sound like I’m putting a downer on social shopping, because given the number of users these platforms have, even making the purchase process easier for those who are at the purchase stage of their journey is going to make some serious cash for retailers.
Also, there are other technologies emerging that will work alongside social platforms to help people find exactly the product they want.
The benefit of shopping online is that, unlike bricks and mortar stores, you don’t have to spend a couple of hours traipsing up and down a rainy high-street only to go home empty handed because you couldn’t find what you were looking for. You can find anything online, right? However, that in itself poses a new challenge – where the heck do you start looking?!
Now, companies like Pinterest and ASOS are developing visual search technology
to help with this problem. In the case of ASOS, you might have seen a jacket that you liked in a particular shop, but there was something about it that wasn’t quite right – perhaps the price, or the size. Now, you can whip out your ASOS app, take a picture of the jacket using your phone’s camera and the app will return a page of similar products. Pinterest lens works in much the same way.
As this technology evolves, retailers who are quick to adopt it will reap the benefits. However, this is where good SEO practice is important. Clear, accurate product descriptions will help return the most appropriate results. As always, it isn’t a case of expecting the tech to do the work for you, but helping to make your life easier.
Things are going to get personal
From your website, through to your emails and down into your digital advertising, you should already be focused on personalisation (if not, we can help you). The advances in AI and machine learning are not only going to enhance your personalisation efforts, but allow companies to cater to bespoke customer needs.
Take predictive analytics and the Internet of Things. At the moment, you may have a handful of web-connected devices in your home. A smart-TV. Perhaps an Amazon Echo or a Google Home assistant. Combined with a rise in voice search
, as more and more connected devices arrive in your home, they will begin to learn your habits and behavior. So, if you ask your smart-kettle to make you a cup of tea every morning at 8am, eventually it will learn to do this automatically. From there, it will also be able to learn how often you need to buy tea bags. With a kettle that’s connected to the internet, it can just go ahead and order those for you (and that’s without going into the life-saving potential of a kettle that notices your dear old Gran has missed her 7am cup of coffee).
Thanks to things like cookies and tracking pixels
, companies are already able to track your activity and browsing habits. As more appliances become ‘connected’, that is only going to increase. And despite valid data and privacy concerns, this is ultimately going to benefit the consumer. If your fridge knows you’re about to run out of that yoghurt you love, perhaps Sainsbury’s uses that data to target you with a promo code for more yoghurt.
Within health and beauty, we’re seeing a number of brands begin to adopt a more personalised approach through the introduction of chatbots. These are already able to establish your needs and recommend products through a series of questions designed to deliver a product that is right for you. As the technology evolves, more and more companies will adopt this approach. We’re only a few years away from everyone having their own personal shopper in their pocket.
Other in-store technology is going to aid with personalisation. Beacon technology already exists that could detect a shopper spent 15 minutes in the TV section before leaving. That’s a clear sign that they’re in the market for a new TV. Using that data, you can start to serve them content or offers related to TV to help push turn that intent into a purchase.
In a world where we’re often too busy to hit the shops, or more interested in spending time enjoying meaningful experiences, technologies that make shopping easier, quicker and more effective are going to win big. And the same goes for the companies that back them.
Online to offline & the physical shopping experience
As I said at the top of this blog, I did my time in retail. That means I’m kinda torn. My job dictates that technology is A GOOD THING, and I’m really excited for what the future holds, but I don’t want to see the high-street die out. Fortunately, despite everything I’ve mentioned so far, I think we’re a long way from that.
It all comes down to online-to-offline commerce (O2O), or as Shopify puts it
, retail’s trillion dollar opportunity. According to them, in 2021 82.5% of all retail sales will still occur in physical stores. Even 70% of those pesky millennials with their darn devices prefer shopping in an actual store. The difference is, those purchases will be influenced by digital touchpoints more than ever before, and that’s where retailers have a real opportunity.
How this looks in practice is still to be discovered. One route could be to follow a more extreme version of ‘webrooming’, similar to the approach taken by furniture retailers such as Made.com and Swoon. These two brands have worked hard to cultivate a desirable, unique aesthetic online and on social. Made have a showroom while Swoon have run pop-up stores, and users visiting these have already built up such a connection with them online that one visit to the physical location is all it takes for them to purchase what is often a significant amount of furniture. This is a route more and more ecommerce retailers may look to follow in the future.
Interestingly, Amazon is often cited as a major factor in businesses shuttering. Bricks and mortar can’t compete with clicks and mortar we’re told. Yet the online giant is actually working to open more and more physical locations. There’s its Amazon Go supermarket, where users swipe their smartphone on the way in, grab the items they want and then get billed to their credit card later. Or then there’s its own take ‘webrooming’, with a store in New York that only stocks products that have a rating of four stars or more on the site.
Even things like Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality have the power to help improve a retailer’s bottom line and close the online-to-offline gap. For example, allowing users to see how a shirt fits, or whether that particular sofa works in the living room will not only reduce the number of returns (and the man power required to process them), but improve the customer experience and deliver repeat custom.
Ultimately though, it comes down to the experience. As click and collect becomes more prevalent, stores will want to look at the collection experience. Perhaps a dedicated waiting area with tea and coffee? We’re already seeing with larger shopping centres like Westfield, that it’s not just about the shops. People want restaurants, cinemas, ice rinks etc. It’s these experiences that will keep footfall high in the surrounding stores.
With big-name brands seemingly shutting down on a weekly basis – Toys ‘r’ Us (and my childhood with it), Maplin and Poundworld have already bitten the dust this year – you would be forgiven for thinking retail is in a bad place. The sound of shutters pulled down acting as a death rattle for the great British high-street. But hopefully this blog has shown that for those companies willing to embrace technology, the future of shopping is looking good – online and offline.