According to the latest figures, the high street has enjoyed a surprise boost in sales, with a 0.7% increase bucking the trend for 2018. However, analysts have warned the unexpected increase can't obscure the gloomy "Brexit clouds" on the long-term horizon.
A report by the KPMG/Ipsos Retail think tank revealed the high street was facing a fight to survive due to "lacklustre" consumer spending. The main reason was continued uncertainty over Britain's exit deal from the European Union.
The late summer spending increase has been revealed by the Office of National Statistics, attributing it to retailers fighting back with strong promotions. This followed their worst dip in sales in April - down 3.1% on the previous month - since figures began in 1995.
There's no room for complacency, due to Prime Minister Theresa May's continued lack of success in negotiating a favourable Brexit deal for Britain. Political and economic uncertainty look set to continue to threaten high street retailers.
Saving the high street
Economic and retail leaders have been left with the burning question of how to save the high street. After all, despite the increase in online retail sales, it is still an incredibly important part of the British economy.
Urban regeneration and development in the UK favours marketable projects in a town or city's local high street. If the high street is run down, it will fail to attract further investment and will be caught in a downward spiral.
A survey carried out by the local authority-led Bristol Futures Group revealed high streets contribute significantly to the local economy.
The survey of retailers and members of the public, entitled Recognising the Economic Importance and Diversity in Bristol’s High Streets, concluded the high street is a place of diverse employment, residential and mixed use, including leisure, community and cultural activities.
Almost half of the employees in the high street worked in non-retail services that had been attracted to the area by its strong retail backbone. Further emphasising the high street's importance as the heart of the local community, data also revealed 66% of shoppers and visitors lived within a 300-metre boundary of the high street - they come on foot.
According to retail consultant and television presenter Mary Portas's High Street Review, high street retailers need to get our town centres running like a business, in order to compete with out-of-town retail centres. She suggests putting in place a "town team" (a strategic, visionary body) to lead the operational management of the high street.
She also suggests introducing legislation to enable more people to become traders by removing unnecessary red tape. Other measures suggested in her review include echoing the benefits provided by out-of-town retail centres, in terms of providing ample, cheap parking, an attractive and clean environment, a healthy retail mix, other things to do and good marketing to attract people in the first place.
Rather than allowing the high street to continue to develop organically, it must have a suitable management plan in place based on a knowledge of the retail industry and consumer habits, so it can adapt to the changing face of consumers' needs.
Portas says every high street needs co-ordinated planning and management. In the same way that a department store is managed, being in single ownership, the high street needs a similar strategy based on vision and direction, targeting any businesses and services that are missing and attracting new investment.
Understanding consumer trends
An important part of any marketing strategy is for retail businesses to understand consumer trends. Businesses can conduct their own personal market research by searching online for consumer reviews of their products and services.
Read the reviews on external sites, respond in a helpful way to any criticism by pledging to resolve the issues and take into account the comments to build on the positives and stamp out the negatives.
Most businesses, however small, have a website and their own Facebook page. These should be regularly updated and any consumer comments should receive a response, taking the appropriate action based on the comments where necessary.
In wider terms, keep track of consumer trends through studying online reports by think tanks and market research experts. A recent study by Blis claimed retailers may prefer to open a new store away from their competitors. However, analysis of foot traffic suggests they may benefit from shopper crossover by opening nearby.
It also reveals that shoppers prefer retailers who provide a frictionless journey between their online store and their high street presence, such as having computer screens in-store where customers can check for stock - a service offered by Argos and Tesco.
An important factor in attracting and keeping customers is to make their overall shopping experience a pleasant one. This can be achieved by creating a warm and inviting atmosphere and providing excellent customer service, including a more personal approach offering bespoke solutions to make each customer feel valued.
An absolute must is improving access for disabled people; not only ensuring the shop has the best disabled access, but also making sure that people who use wheelchairs can move freely around the interior without feeling cramped, or getting stuck at hazards, such as over-large displays.
Plan your store layout to get people to make purchases. Start by creating eye-catching window displays and signage that pull people in. Remember that from the moment a customer steps inside until the moment they leave, smart design decisions can influence whether they buy or not.
Surveys conducted in the United States showed that 90% of customers usually went off to the right when they entered a store. It's known as the "power wall" and is the first impression they have of your merchandise. Capture their attention with new products, high-demand or high-profit items.
Another tip is to have customers walk a path, using the careful layout of furniture, shelving, rails and racks, so that they see all of your merchandise as they browse. Most stores try to use a circular anti-clockwise path, with eye-catching displays strategically placed, on the assumption customers will have entered and turned to the right.
Keep your aisles wide enough to make sure customers have enough personal space to pass each other comfortably. Research has shown that many customers, particularly women, will avoid going down an aisle so narrow that they will have to brush past other customers.
With high street retailers facing competition from online stores, take advantage of the latest technology so that it complements your bricks and mortar shop, rather than working against it. Savvy retailers are creating a new type of "clicks and mortar" shop, where tech is used advantageously.
For example, smart mirrors (enabling customers to look at themselves while swapping between a number of virtual reality outfits, to avoid the hassle of physically getting changed in the changing rooms) may sound like science fiction, but some stores around the world, including GAP and Topshop, are already trialling the mirrors.
They deliver an experience that's better than online shopping, as customers are actually seeing themselves in the outfits, rather than just seeing a picture on a website.
Using AI could save retailers across the world billions of pounds a year by improving the shops' efficiency, according to the marketing director of SAP Hybris UK, Roland van Breukelen, who promotes marketing technology.
Retailers should also devise ways of adding complementary activities, in addition to shopping, to ensure the customers' complete experience is an enjoyable one.
For example, in the United States, the beauty chain Ultra Beauty saw sales increase by 23.7% when they introduced in-store beauty treatments for customers' hair, skin and brows in small salons in each store.
In the UK, supermarkets such as Waitrose, Tesco and Asda have introduced a scan-as-you-shop scheme to speed up the time spent at the checkout.
Luxury brand Rebecca Minkoff has taken the tech experience one step further by introducing smart mirrors and smart walls, which suggest different styles to complement whatever the customer is trying on. They are also offer a glass of bubbly as they browse.
Bricks-and-mortar retailers can use their physical presence on the high street to their advantage. Although purchasing habits are changing and more people are browsing online, they will often go to a physical store after initially seeing products that they want online if the in-store experience is pleasant enough to warrant a visit in person.
Retailers need to use everything in their power to ensure the high street continues well into the future - your retail premises should be fitted out with the best possible display equipment.
KAS Shopfittings supplies high-quality shop fittings such as shelving, counters, card racks, slatwall and other shop display equipment. With products for every style of premises, available for UK-wide delivery, contact us on 01793 754230 and get ready to take on your online competitors!