Why The High Street is Failing – First Impressions

Woolworths Plumstead High Street

It might be something of a cliché but successful retailing is almost certainly still in the detail. When you look at some of the bigger retail names that we have lost from the UK high street in recent years (Woolworth’s, Comet, etc.), it is clear that they had lost their focus many years before their ultimate collapse and issues like the economy and Internet competition were just the final straws to break the camel’s back.

If retailers truly believe the often cited “Retail is detail” quote (originated by James Gulliver, the late British retail entrepreneur behind the Fine Fare and Safeway supermarket brands), then why are so many details so poorly executed.

First Impressions

First impressions count and are rarely more important than in the retail environment. Real world retailers won’t be too comforted (or surprised) to learn that this is an area where traditional retailers are at a massive disadvantage to their online contemporaries. It’s also an area where many traditional retailers let themselves down terribly.

You don’t need to walk too far down any high street to see a list of quite frankly lazy retail mistakes. While some of the problems highlighted in this post might, at first glance, seem petty or even insignificant but once you fully consider the advantages afforded to the Internet retailer, you’ll want to insure every potential flaw in your operation is dealt with.

Your First Chance to Make a Bad First Impression

You only get one chance to make a great first impression. This is as true in the online environment as it is in traditional retail.

Because online retailers often pay (and not an insignificant amount) for the privilege of visitors landing on their website and understand that that investment can be lost in the brief second it takes a customer to click their mouse and visit another page, they understand that a bad first impression can be an expensive mistake.

Online retailers are rarely complacent about how their customers perceive their businesses, investing millions of dollars each year in usability, conversion and analytics (tracking people from the moment they enter a site until the moment they leave and even beyond).

Note: It’s a misconception that running an online retail business is cheap. Costs in marketing and development can be significant and, as with many high street businesses, margins can often be under extreme pressure.

But before we examine the many advantages the online retailer has over their high street contemporaries in greater detail, let us first look at some common (and inexcusable) mistakes that retailers of all shapes and sizes make every day.

The following bullet-points are by no means conclusive but they provide a good starting point and are often caused by simple complacency. If you have become complacent about the way you conduct your business and believe forces outside of your control are exclusively to blame for a downturn in businesses – it’s time to take a good, long, hard look at yourself and ask if you are doing everything you should be to ensure a healthy, profitable future for yourself and your employees.

  • Irregular Opening Hours: If your customers are in fulltime employment, have children or generally lead busy lives (and who doesn’t these days?), you’ll want to make it as easy as possible for them to shop with you. This means being open and at your most efficient (i.e. having the optimum number staff available to serve your customers in a courteous, professional and timely manner) at a time when your patrons find it most convenient to visit your premises. This, depending on your clientele’s preferences, might mean opening at lunch times, before and after the school run, in the evenings, at weekends and on public holidays. This also means planning your day to suit your customers’ needs and not your own or those of your staff. Staff should not take staggered lunch breaks at lunch time when the majority of your customers enter your shop. Worse still, if you are one of those retailers who nips out for a sandwich at lunchtime, leaving a “Back in 15 minutes” sign in the window and wonder why trade is so slow in the afternoon – it’s time to get more organized in the morning.  A customer with only an hour to spare at lunchtime will quickly learn not to visit your shop if its opening times are not reliable. Smaller retailers who perhaps do not have the staffing levels to stay open all hours should select slower trading periods to close and publicise these non-trading hours clearly alongside their opening times and stick to them rigidly. Very few customers will grudge you closing on a Monday or Tuesday afternoon if you are available throughout the weekend and late into the evenings. They’ll be even happier if they can shop with you outside of normal trading hours. This is why a good online presence is so important for today’s high street retailers and is something we will be exploring throughout this book.
  • Bad Lighting/Poor Window Displays: Almost as bad as having irregular opening hours. If your shop is badly lit or your window display fails to deliver, it will almost certainly have poor “curb appeal” and may even appear to passing trade as closed or out of business. Decent curb appeal doesn’t only apply to passing motorists who need to see a shop, be made aware that it is open for business and persuade them to pull over and find (and potentially pay) for a parking space in the brief couple of seconds it takes to drive past. The appearance of a warm, inviting shop window might just persuade a tired, heavily laden shopper on a cold damp Saturday afternoon to walk that last 20 meters or cross a busy road to your shop door.
  • Permanent Sales: I’m not sure people actually believe in sales anymore.  Too many retailers rely on attracting punters with seemingly never ending sales and as a result the sales price becomes the full price. Once you have cut your margins to the bone – where do you go? A sale should be an event your customers look forward to and an opportunity for you to clear old, slow moving or end of line stock. While there is nothing wrong with a permanent sale rail, the promise of a regular, extended sales period will ultimately damage your reputation and make it virtually impossible to sell anything at full price. It is much better to be known for offering good value, excellent customer service and detailed product knowledge (these are things you can charge a premium for) than a cheap shop that is all too ready to shred their margins and drop their prices.
  • Cluttered Displays: Many retailers believe in the concept of piling their products high and selling them cheap. This can have its advantages. It is better to have products on the shop floor where they can be seen and therefore purchased than languishing in the warehouse.  But it can get to the stage where customers become overwhelmed by the sheer volume of stock. A customer needs to be able to navigate their way around your premises
  • Surly Staff: Do you staff mope around behind the counter trying to avoid eye contact with your customers. Can you see them from the street looking bored and under-employed. You should be paying these people to be courteous and welcoming to your customers. Instead you are paying them to driving your customers away.
  • The Apologetic Sale: Have you ever heard yourself or a member of staff apologising for the price of an item. Your products have a perceived value and if people don’t want to pay the advertised price, they won’t. Remember the old sales cliché, scream benefits, whisper costs. Can you imagine a Bentley motorcar salesperson talking down their product or apologising for the high cost? I don’t think so.
  • Smokers Corner: Do staff greet your customers while standing in a huddled group, smoking cigarettes in your doorway? My local supermarket insists on making its smokers stand next to the bike rack at the side of the building, thus placing many of its healthiest shoppers next to its unhealthiest staff. If this isn’t bad enough, seeing someone sitting on the ground (essentially an open ashtray) one minute and then handling food the next is enough to make me visit another, more hygienic store.
Free parking unnecessary online - courtesy Tim Collins

Free parking unnecessary online

The Online Advantage

When a customer lands on a website, what they see is often very different from the reality of the online operations true situation.

A website’s front end (the bit the consumer sees) is essentially just a glossy skin pulled tight over several pieces of clever technology bolted together (often very clumsily from a technology point of view) to ensure as near a seamless shopping experience as possible. It is very easy to make even the cheapest web-based shopping technology look very professional. Behind the sleek exterior is a different story – but nobody see that, so it doesn’t matter.

Nobody cares what an online retailer’s warehouse looks like, where it is located and whether or not the warehouse team member picking and packing your purchases has had a good wash and shave that morning (or even that week).

Of the many online retailers’ warehouses I have personally visited while working with technology companies like iContact and SellerExpress few of them fall into the multi-million pound, high-tech, temperature-controlled, county-sized facilities operated by the likes of Amazon. Most are freezing cold sheds, situated on less than salubrious industrial estates in the outer most corners of the UK. But this doesn’t matter. No matter what state the online retailers’ back room operations are in, it is very easy for them to throw up a highly professional, completely flexible façade to sell from behind.

When you shop online you don’t see the warehouse manager sharing a crafty cigarette with the fork lift driver in the car park or hear any unprofessional language coming from the man wearing the Hooters t-shirt while pulling items from the shelf and wrapping them in bubble wrap prior to dispatch. In fact online retail tends to be quite anonymous – this helps them keep costs down and maintain margins despite heavy discounting. In fact online retail is so anonymous that many customers judge their service entirely on the quality of the courier (a third party) who delivers their packages.

High Street Camden

High Street Camden

Online retailers have the advantage of being able to change the appearance of their virtual shop windows in a click. Sophisticated online stores will even be able to match the appearance of their store to the individual customers liking based on previous purchases and visits. Imagine being able to show a bespoke window display to everyone who passes your shop. This is what traditional retailers are up against – and it gets worse.

This is just the tip of the iceberg.

But it doesn’t mean that traditional retailers cannot fight back. They need to learn from online retailer, adopt new business practices and yes, even embrace the Internet. The future of the high street might look bleak but it will become incredibly bleaker if they do not change their ways and fast.

I do not believe for one minute that online retail is the cause of the high street’s demise. It might just be its savior.


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