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The future of the high street

by team Holly & Co

Oh the great British high street. Who doesn’t love the idea of a Saturday morning stroll to the local baker, picking up a warm loaf of bread and a cake for later? There’s something about being gently pulled towards the smell of fresh coffee beans next door, before meandering down the street to find a handmade birthday card for your friend at your favourite gift shop…

Fortunately for some this is a welcome reality. However for many of us living in the UK our high street jaunt is more likely to involve dodging betting shops, discount stores and supermarkets than enjoying the richness of our small UK businesses. So why is this and more importantly, what does that mean for us? 

Convenience is a key factor. Often, if people can’t get everything they need in one trip, they’ll likely go elsewhere – whether that be online or to a chain or shopping centre. And whilst the high street was already in decline before the pandemic hit, it has been accelerated because of COVID-19. Many of our cherished small businesses were deemed ‘non-essential’ and high street shops struggled.

However the spirit of community – and genuine desire to support small and local – has grown throughout our lockdown periods. Retail Week’s 2021 High Street Report revealed that a whopping 81% of people surveyed said they would care if their local high street disappeared¹. This seems to be part of a new wave of positivity that small businesses can now ride.

So what’s this new wave and how can I get on it?

Well there’s good news all round because the future of the high street relies upon small businesses to succeed again. Retail Week’s 2021 High Street Report also found that, “Independent businesses are the key to characterising communities, in contrast to the ‘clone town’ model, popular 15 years ago.” Furthermore, “A quarter of consumers feel motivated to use the high street in order to help their local community and 18% cite it as a location to meet and see other people. People are still attached to their high streets.”

It seems that people are craving people. For our Holly & Co community this can be practically applied in both physical and online spaces. Online stores can introduce chat widgets or a Whatsapp number so customers can get a quick reply to a question. Similarly fun and helpful newsletters are a fantastic way of starting a conversation with your customers. For small businesses with bricks and mortar stores the possibilities are endless, from introducing tea and biscuits in store to conversation starter cards – anything to build a connection with customers and get a chance to tell your story.

How does technology fit into this experience?

Well it seems this desire for human connection doesn’t conflict with the emergence of new technology on the high street, as the excitingly named ‘Futurologist’ Jaroslav Dokoupil explains, “The more technology we have in the retail experience, the more we will appreciate the human touch. The value of creativity will become even more special and human originality will stand-out even more.” So what technology should we be looking out for? Well, alongside the new worlds of VR and AI, 3D printing seems set to be a huge trend. 3D printers allow for small-run experimentation and intricacy.

According to Jaroslav, the number one thing that people want to print is food! And whilst it might seem far-fetched to imagine that many designer/makers could soon be equipped with their own personal 3D printer, it wasn’t too long ago that social media (and even mobile phones) weren’t integral parts of our lives. If we look to China – which is on track to be the first country with more ecommerce retail than physical retail – a ‘clicks and mortar’ approach seems to be the future.

It seems that people are craving people. For our Holly & Co community this can be practically applied in both physical and online spaces. Online stores can introduce chat widgets or a Whatsapp number so customers can get a quick reply to a question. Similarly fun and helpful newsletters are a fantastic way of starting a conversation with your customers.

The benefits of omnichannel shopping

In May 2021, L’Oréal opened its first omnichannel concept store in Shanghai, aiming to bring a little of Paris to consumers who were still unable to travel to the French capital. As well as selling cosmetics and skincare products, the outlet included an interactive cycling simulator that takes visitors on a virtual ride through the city while they pick up points that can then be used towards discounts. For those who can’t visit in person, L’Oréal built an in-store set to serve as the backdrop for livestreaming by beauty influencers.

The idea of merging IRL and URL is echoed by CBRE, who predict that, “A key influence on performance will be the ability for stores to seamlessly merge a fantastic immersive physical experience with powerful yet subtle technology.”² For example in 2040, “Staff will be alerted when a customer enters a store as sensors detect the user’s mobile phone (or another piece of wearable tech), and their data – including purchase history and sociodemographic information based on where they live – will be passed onto the worker’s in-store tablet (or equivalent). So here, insight is underpinning technology’s edge. And across the board, technology is enhancing the things we as humans have always wanted.” How very ‘Minority Report’ it all seems.

So what do customers want? Here are our thoughts…

1) Experience. Think in-store artists, exercise bike pop-ups, donut collaborations.

2) Connection. Conversations, enthusiasm, energy, friendship. 

3) Convenience. Things delivered within hours, drone delivery, click and collect, scan and go. 

4) Options. Online / offline / both.

5) Knowledge. A knowledge of your customer and what they want to buy / how they want to shop. 

6) Guidance. Personal shopping and product edits.

7) Quality over quantity. Well-made items, thoughtfully produced.

8) Super service. Knowledgeable staff, who anticipate needs and over-deliver.

Wired magazine writes that, “John Lewis will start to occupy less space – and focus on ‘hero products’ that will be presented to customers by well-trained brand ambassadors tooled up with all the latest technology.”³ For our Holly & Co community this type of approach is a massive win because no-one is better equipped to be our own brand ambassadors than ourselves. Small business owners have a unique advantage over bigger businesses because they are at the front line every day. You know your products and your customers’ needs and this level of care is exactly what the future of the high street is going to be built on. Whether technology or humans are delivering this. As Holly says: “Now is your time to really showcase your passion and nerve. Be unique. Make your work really hard to copy. Do something extraordinary in your local community. The more you have to talk about the more people will talk about you.”

Nostalgia versus the future

From a retail point of view one of the key things to come out of the pandemic is an incredible opportunity to shape the future of the high street; to build upon what people loved about our traditional high street and make it ‘future-ready.’ From personalised experiences to hyper convenience, and integrated online and offline worlds, there is a clear appetite for the high street to become more than a shopping experience. And the good news is that there is no one better placed than the small business community to decide what this looks like.

Small business owners have a unique advantage over bigger businesses because they are at the front line every day. You know your products and your customers' needs and this level of care is exactly what the future of the high street is going to be built on.

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