Retail needs to be online and off at the same time

By Guest Contributor
November 27, 2012

–David Green is business development director at GB Group. The opinions expressed are his own.–

High street retail is in trouble; suffering due to factors such as the explosion of ecommerce. Recent studies show that more than one in ten shops lie dormant in the UK and online shopping has undoubtedly had a large part to play in this. But those that turn it into a competition between online and physical retail are missing the point. The companies which will be the most successful are those that can combine a strong online presence with in-store experience.

A recent study from the British Retail Consortium (BRC) found that 11.3% of shops in town centres across the UK remain vacant. This is the worst figure since its nationwide survey began. The decline of high street brands like Woolworths, Borders and now Comet show that this is a serious problem. Brands such as ASOS, Amazon and eBay, which exist solely online, are able to save costs on staff and property and through smartphones, tablets and PCs these online stores are increasingly accessible.

Most high-street companies also boast websites, but this is only half of the solution. The companies which have the most success are not just the ones which have websites and in-store presences, but the ones which use the two avenues to build up relationships with their customers and encourage repeat custom. By encouraging registration, whether online or in the physical shop with mailing lists or loyalty cards, retailers can begin to understand their customers. As interactions with customers become increasingly fleeting in a global and diversified online marketplace, businesses must make extra effort to interact with their customers. This is crucial to encouraging brand affinity and repeat custom both online and in-store.

Information gained through in-store registration processes can be used to encourage online custom. In recent years, landlines and postal addresses have been usurped by mobile numbers, email addresses and social networks as the most important forms of data to be attained. If retailers can attain some of this information by encouraging customers to sign up to a mailing list, they can inform patrons of the best deals online, deals catered to their in-store preferences.

Contact details provided by the user online can be used to help direct website shoppers to their nearest physical outlet. They can also provide invaluable insight for forward planning in-store. Specific deals at physical shops can be offered to users based on their preferences. With customer data, companies can recognise trends such as a wide number of its customers coming from a certain part of the country or a particular area of a city. This can then help inform a company’s decisions on the locations of new outlets or help strategically plan marketing campaigns.

To secure the future of high-street retail, companies will need to view their online and offline presences as inter-dependant. Both outlets serve to promote each other and the data collected at both points must be used to strengthen a company’s overall offering. It is only by taking this hybrid approach, making the most of customer data, that retailers can ride out the difficult times.

There is no doubting that high street retail is currently in difficult waters but with accurate data and a combined approach there is a lifeline. With both online and offline spheres crucially important to each-other, companies must learn how to be on and off at the same time.

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