Bricks, Clicks & Tricks

15 May 2023

The high street is dying. Is it? Well, that’s the impression you get from reading the constant drip-drip of stories chronicling the latest retailer to go online only or another announcement of large-scale store closures.

If we look out and see the wider picture, it’s truer to say some of the high street is struggling. While many famous names have disappeared from the UK’s shopping centres, others are thriving. Top Shop and Paperchase have gone, but Primark are opening a slew of new stores this year and the Card Factory have tripled their profits.

Why do some high street names fail while others carry on? What was it about those chains that have gone out of business that caused their difficulties?

The cliched answer is “everyone shops online these days”, which has some truth, but that doesn’t answer why some retailers thrive in the physical and online environment while others wither.

Each time a big name shuts up shop, it makes the news. If you go back and look at those news reports to read the commentary, there is a common theme.

When Debenhams closed, retail analyst Richard Lim said they had “failed to embrace change and … left with a tiring proposition”. Harsha Wickremasinghe of Livingstone said, “its lacklustre stores, uninspiring brand mix and poor digital capabilities has left it woefully exposed”.

My notes from my last visit to Debenhams say, “doesn’t know what it is, playing childish pop hits to a grown-up customer base”.

The BBC spoke to a Debenhams store employee called Julie on the day her store closed. Julie said simply, “the company lost its way”.

Of all the experts, Julie put it best. Losing your way, isn’t good for business. No one has loyalty or affinity for something that doesn’t know what it is. Mixed messages create consumer vulnerability.

Lost its way sums up so many retailers that are no more. A report on the collapse of BHS says they “failed to maintain relevancy” and “the biggest lesson that retailers can learn from the failure of BHS is that they should continually strive to ensure they stay focussed on giving customers what they want.”

It also says, “the majority of BHS stores are not fun, bright or dynamic” – if you need bright, fun, and dynamic in your stores, I know a product that can help!

When Gap closed, Richard Lim said, “Gap became much more vanilla and lost distinctiveness”?

These stores did have to change and refresh themselves. Their issue was that they hadn’t nailed the customer experience in store, so when they refreshed, the customers really felt it. And they didn’t like it.

There’s another trend which is notable in these analysts’ reports – when the brand’s store and online offering didn’t match up. Brand loyalty is won or lost with every interaction with the brand and if your online is stunning, but your stores are not, that inconsistency is going to cost.

I know from working with JD, how they avoid losing their way. The consistency at every touchpoint means wherever you meet JD, it’s always the same JD. It’s something we work on them with. The music in a JD store must amplify everything JD is about, not just a bit of music to sound cool, but a sound that makes a statement about where you are.

Written by Euan McMorrow – Content Director at AVC Immedia.

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