Retail is now technology.

Retail is all about change. Formats get reimagined, in-store merchandising changes daily, departments get increased or decreased in accordance with demand or seasonality. Our marketing campaigns move and adapt with the times. If you’re in retail in you’re in the business of change. It’s dynamic, always has been.

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Retail has been to the forefront of technological change too. The very first commercial installation of an elevator by Otis was in a five storey New York department store. Escalators followed soon after and became common place in the US in the early part of the 20th century. The first cash register was patented in 1883. Its development influenced the recording and management of data that had wider implications beyond retail. Retail gave us the price gun, the bar code, modern consumer marketing and even the widespread use of the computer. British tea chain J. Lyons & Co saw the potential for computers in retail as far back as 1947. So technology and change are part and parcel of retail, so what’s the difference with the new world of retail?

Well the difference this time around is the fact that the retailers are no longer driving the change and as a result no longer in control. The change is now being driven by the consumer. And yes that can be a little bit scary.

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Now the big guys are working hard to catch up. Getting their messaging and branding right, across all the channels. Ensuring their on line identity mirrors their in store experiencing as closely as possible. The pure on line guys with their dynamic exponential growth don’t have these issues, or not yet at least. The poor relation it seems in the modern retail age is the independent retail sector. After all as a sector it has yet to really get to grips with the new multichannel environment. The larger chains have departments to look after ecommerce. They have the resources to manage digital marketing, social media, click and collect etc. etc. The Amazons, ASOS’ etc. only live on line and don’t need to worry about the high street physical space. The independent could easily be forgiven for raising the white flag.

 

But before that happens we’d like to put forward an alternative view. Our view is the physical space has a very big future. The small independent retailer has a very big future. You might not think so if you’re to believe the press and current group think on eCommerce. Almost to underline what we’ve been saying for some time now I’ve attached a link  ( http://internetretailing.net/2014/04/most-uk-shoppers-still-prefer-stores-to-ecommerce-study/ ) to the latest research from YouGov concerning UK consumer insights. In brief it suggests that consumers still enjoy the act of shopping in a store. It also underlines another of our beliefs that given the opportunity a shopper likes to touch and see product. It’s no longer an either or question when it comes to Brick & Mortar or online retail. As far as the consumer is concerned it’s all just retail now. The consumer is now on Facebook, Pinterest, Tumble, Twitter etc. and they’re using it for browsing and shopping. Your customer is much more likely to believe a person they’ve never met over you when it comes to reading product reviews.

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Your consumer is now browsing, researching and shopping on their phones and tablets. Are you digitally invisible or will they find you where they are looking? As a retailer you need a digital strategy. Your customers are living in a digital world so it makes sense for you to inhabit that same world. Sound scary? Well it really isn’t. When you strip out the big words and tech speak it really comes back to basic retail. The rules don’t change that much, it still comes down to service, convenience and product. This brings me back to our main point which is the physical retailer will trump the online only retailer every time. If you back up the shop with the eCommerce site your consumer can choose to do business with you in many more convenient and varied ways than they can with Amazon or ASOS. We are shameless in our support for independent retail and their suppliers. We favour the diversity, personality and passion of the independent over the larger chains or online only guys. The future is unwritten, it will involve change, but rest assured if you embrace it the future is brighter than you might currently think. Embrace the technology and use it to win, after all isn’t that what retail has done in the past ?

High street closures, it’s not a done deal you know!

The demise of our high streets is very current right now. I’ve read this week of a near apocalyptic scenario whereby it’s predicted that up to 20% of UK high street stores will close by 2018. That figure could rise it seems to 30% for Wales and the North West of the UK, according to the Mail at any rate. This is now being reported as fact and is in danger as being consumed as such. Is there any other industry where this would happen? I think not. Independent retail is diverse and as such can sometimes struggle to speak with one voice. For example how would the drinks industry, pharmaceutical industry, road haulage industry and perhaps farmers react to such headlines? Loudly no doubt.

We need to get away from the fait accompli approach to the high street. This is not a fact and is not guaranteed to happen if the high street and independent retailers react. Retail is and always has been about change. Seasonality, product and range, merchandising and reacting to the challenges presented over the last 100 years. Wanamaker’s Grand Emporium Philadelphia saw the arrival of the merchandiser, retailers began to welcome customers to their stores. This was more than just a catchphrase as retailers dismantled steps and any other hindrance a customer might encounter prior to entry. Next on the agenda was large windows, dressed with mannequins. Ground breaking indeed. The death of the small retailer was imminent it seemed. Guess what they adapted.

Stores such as Selfridges of London, Marshall Fields of Chicago and Bon Marche of Paris were swiftly followed Frank Woolworth and the first chain store in the early 20th Century. Independent retail was on the ropes. However the next retail revolution was not another large format but was the arrival of the boutique. The fact is when you chart the development of retail you see a constant pattern of change. Decline and renaissance as portrayed in the book “The Business of Britain in the 20th Century”.

The fact that retail is all about change should allow us to grab the new environment of eCommerce and mold it to suit our needs as retailers. Technology is changing the world at ever increasing speeds. The way we bank, the way we communicate and yes the way we shop. But behind all the technology there’s always people. We as retailers have communicated with our customers face to face, on our shop floors. We can still communicate but our shop floor is now in more than one place. If anything it’s now even easier to meet our customers, easier to have a conversation, a real two way conversation. But in order to do this we must be in the right state of mind and in the right places. Our high street location is now only one such place. Others include twitter, facebook, pinterest and hopefully on our eCommerce enabled web site. Change brings with it great challenges but it also brings great opportunities. Embrace the opportunities to mitigate the challenges.

As independent retailers we need to be more confident. Independent retail offers individuality, service, diversity and more often than not quality. Quality of service and product. Getting drawn into a price war with online retailers is a zero sum game. Independent retail brings much more to the party than price. Get online, develop an eCommerce site. Do this not just to sell but to shout. Shout about what you’re good at, your advantages, your personality. Be brave and embrace the change, after all where would retail be without change?

Let’s make multi-channel retailing a by line for a strong independent retail sector.

I’ve just had sight of the latest eCommerce Europe press release and it makes for exciting reading. It gets really exciting if you’re a retailer and even more so if you are getting, or have plans to get, your slice of the pie. The question though is how many retailers are getting their share and if they are not then why not?

Five years ago for many independent retailers the web and eCommerce were asides and worthy of note but it seemed little else. Those that did venture online usually did so by getting a web site built and in all probability collected customers e mail addresses. They did this because it was what you were meant to do and let’s face it, it was fashionable. But what about a return? What about the fact that getting a site built was the easy part and maintenance and management was really where the skill set was required?

Here we all are in 2013 and it seems many independent retailers are more aware than ever of the need to get online. However the game has changed and it’s no longer enough to simply get a web site developed. What is required is a full multi-channel approach to retailing. This can all get a bit scary if you’re an independent retailer without the expertise or budgets of the larger operators who have whole departments given over to eCommerce. But I’d argue that because the Tesco’s, Next’s and Debenham’s of this world have placed such importance on the sector it is now a necessity for independent retail to do the same.

This is where it gets difficult however and insecurity and doubt can enter the equation. Do we have the budgets, do we have the expertise and, in all probability the biggest limiting factor, do we have the time?

Well I believe we do. If you buy into that then we can move the debate forward and start focusing on what makes independent retail great and the many advantages it has in the eCommerce sector.

Let’s start with the fact that independent retail is operated by people who are passionate about retail. That passion might wane for individuals periodically but overall I believe that to be true. If retailers were not, then in all probability they’d put all the hassles behind them and go work for a large multiple and draw a wage every week. That passion usually means they possess product knowledge and service levels superior to the larger chains and online only operators.

Independent retail is not just about commerce as they populate town centres and high streets as opposed to the larger out of town centres. They provide a social hub and fabric as opposed to a giant grey box on the edge of town.

If we look at independent retail as a group then the advantages it has over the oft times bland and uniformed approach taken by the chains is indisputable. But how do we get that message across? How do we let the consumer know that independent retail can offer individuality, range of product and price as well as service levels that leave the chains and large operators in the shade? We would say by taking a strength in numbers approach. Independent retailer’s competition is no longer the boutique or corner shop down the road it’s the multi-channel giants such as Debenham’s et al and the online operators such as ASOS. By taking a new collaborative approach then independent retail can package and market themselves to a wider audience. As I always believed I’d much rather have my largest competitor next door then two miles away. At least then I can compete and even take advantage of their marketing and footfall.

Independent retailers need to play to their strengths, of which there are many. I’ve only touched on a few. The new and exciting world of multi-channel retailing is not a threat but a great opportunity. Okay so you’ve only got 1000 sq foot on the high street. Well guess what that’s a 1000 sq foot more than ASOS. To me that means it’s easier for you to become a multi-channel retailer than it is for them. Did you know the fastest means of fulfilment for consumers whilst shopping online is click and collect? You can do that easy. Did you know 80% of all online searches start out as local searches and that 96% of UK and 94% of US consumers research online before purchasing locally? You know who these consumers are, they’re your bread and butter. Did you know that 87% of UK and 85% of US consumers felt that multichannel was influential on their shopping habits? Well now you do and you can start influencing them.

In short and to make a long story a little longer, independent retail needs to be more proactive and confident when it comes to eCommerce you hold more cards than you realise. Let’s make multi-channel retailing a by line for a strong independent retail sector.

http://www.ecommerce-europe.eu/press/2013/05/press-release-european-e-commerce-to-reach-312-billion-in-2012-19-growth )