Since pioneers like Amazon and Alibaba cemented e-commerce as a staple business feature, commentators have predicted the demise of the high street. Initially niche, consumers have now been perfectly comfortable buying online for some time. In fact, 60% of global shoppers prefer to purchase books, music, movies, and video games online, while 52% of shoppers prefer to research clothing and footwear purchases online. Many high street stores have suffered as a direct result of online competition and, predictably, people have prophesied the complete demise of brick-and-mortar retail outlets. Indeed, growth has slowed and some major giants have struggled, but there is life in the high street yet and brands are experimenting with ways to bring it to life.
Naturally, there are certain stores that will be more resistant to change than others - local grocery stores will be affected by online delivery services but it's difficult to imagine customers quickly switching to online food ordering in their droves. In fact, online grocery is struggling to reach even the 2% share mark, according to the annual Food and Beverage Report. 78% of adults still purchase regularly from traditional grocery stores, while less than 5% of adults say they make at least six online purchases per year.
Even in the digital age, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that customers still value the tactile experience of a physical store - an IBM survey found that even Generation Z overwhelmingly preferred brick-and-mortar stores - and there are certain items that, to many, it simply doesn't make sense to buy online. Clothing, for example, is something many prefer to try before they buy, and basic household items are in many cases easier to simply pick up from a local store. Physical stores are also many shoppers' preferred way of dealing with returns or exchanges, and there will always be value in being able to hold a product when considering it.
The solution, then, is for brands to link their online and physical experiences to maximize the effectiveness of both. Brick-and-mortar stores can survive by experimenting with new technologies and new models, while larger brands have the opportunity to connect more closely with otherwise online customers at physical locations. Experiential marketing is one of the biggest potential uses for brick-and-mortar stores going forward, as brands find new and inventive ways to connect the physical and digital experiences.
Many choose to put together temporary pop up stores, which are taking retail by storm, with the UK's pop up industry alone estimated to be worth £2.3 billion. It's the opportunity to connect with consumers in person that is leading many online brands or software companies to set up temporary outlets and experiences. Take Snap Inc., for example. The company with only one physical product (the limited edition 'Spectacles') partnered with Westfield shopping malls in both the US and the UK to install 'Snapbots,' no bigger than vending machines, allowing shoppers to have the tactile experience of trialling the Spectacles in person. Snap's installations captured the imagination in part because they were a physical representation of a digital brand, appearing where consumers would not expect them to, and providing a link between the physical and digital spaces.
Snap isn't alone in connecting the digital and the physical. On top of its permanent stores, which currently only exist in the US, Amazon has experimented with opening pop up stores to provide experiences for its customers. To raise awareness of its Black Friday sales frenzy, the retail giant opened a pop up store in London's Soho Square, in which visitors were encouraged to try out everything from electronics to beauty products ahead of the major sale. Amazon arranged the space to look and feel like a home, complete with kitchen, bedrooms, living area, kids room, etc., which makes far more sense when the space is a pop up experience rather than a permanent store. 'We are showcasing some of our biggest and best Black Friday deals — which will be shoppable through our app,' Doug Gurr, country manager of Amazon.co.uk, said, 'as well as offering some fantastic sampling experiences and interactive workshops with some of our Marketplace and Handmade sellers.' Amazon's experiment is a suggestion of what the future could look like for physical stores; consumers should get used to installations from major digital-first or digital-only companies, and the store will in many cases act as more of a showroom than a marketplace.
'In terms of segments of customers that have grown, we’re seeing more and more ecommerce companies that want to test offline,' Elizabeth Layne, chief marketing officer of pop-up retail company Appear Here, said. It may seem counterintuitive for digital-first brands to pursue brick-and-mortar projects, but the high street's continued survival in the face of competition suggests it still has a major role to play. More and more brands will follow the examples set by Snap and Amazon, and consumers are set become accustomed to shopping for experiences, rather than just products.