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The Brave New World of Old Retailing

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How technology is shaping the future of retail stores

My grandparents ran a shop. A little shop, in a little town, in a little region of Britain called Cornwall. Special for many things, Cornwall was, is and is unlikely ever to be a shopping mecca, or even frankly somewhere that offers much more than the basics. Their shop was a general store, selling food and cleaning products, the ubiquitous Cornish Pasty, dairy and meat. It served a local market in this small town, at the very end of the land, just like thousands of other shops in villages and towns across the country and indeed, the world. The shopkeeper knew the customer, the customer knew them, knew what was for sale and not much changed, for decades, indeed perhaps longer.

In time, larger chains started to proliferate, even in small town Cornwall, including the Co-Op, who brought wider ranges, cheaper prices and something called a supply chain. The limited options offered by the local shop were largely superceded by the modern ranges of brands and products that were designed for changing tastes and marketing effectively through a proliferating media.

And then, along came the internet and everything changed, with access to a global market, virtually limitless choice, next day, or even same day delivery, straight from one’s computer screen. Even the supermarkets and chains of the mid to late 20th Century found the struggle to adapt and sell through this new channel an impossibly hard job and the decline in revenues as customers through the door dried up and all the business headed for the brave new world of the world-wide web.

And the traditional shop and all the people in it died.

Except it didn’t.

The current state of in-store retail shopping

Today, we spend £358 billion a year shopping in the UK, with retailers’ marketing budgets accounting for over £22 Billion annually, with 50% spent on online marketing, from social media, to content marketing and online adverts. Yet, 80% of purchases happen in physical shops. The online world has an abundance of tools and technologies to enable the identification, segmentation and targeting of products and content at consumers, yet walking into the average shop is in many ways like walking into my grandparents’ shop in small town Cornwall, over 70 years ago.

Digitalising in-store experiences

A few retailers, mainly led by the likes of Amazon Go in the US are leading the way with their vision of the future of retail stores. Intent on rolling out smart stores, with completely tracked and transformed shopping environments. No tills, no payments, pressure sensitive shelves, cameras tracking movement and even dynamic pricing, based on times, dates and campaigns. 

But most retailers still display and utilise limited technological advancements which are typically confined to EPoS systems, some barcode scanners, a few digital signs and some snappy add-ons like staff tablets or phones, for stock checks and order taking in restaurants. When it comes to how the store is actually managed, how consumers are communicated with in store and how many of the facets of the store are run, a dizzying combination of emails, PDFs, faxes and even the good old telephone are still the methods that help run the average shop, with spreadsheets being used to coordinate a dazzling array of different mission-critical elements of what are, in many cases, multi-billion pound businesses.

It’s hardly surprising at one level. The average retailer is margin driven, focused on unit economics, cutting costs and flipping stock that isn’t selling. At the same time, the waste and inefficiencies in retailers is still far higher than many other types of business would accept, or sustain. From excess stock, to badly ordered and implemented fixtures and campaign materials through to the perennial juggling act of staffing levels, based on little visibility of the factors that affect trading performance, stores are riven with inefficiencies and lost sales opportunities.

Ways every retailer can think smarter.

Yet simple technologies can play a part in helping retailers to cut waste, reduce errors, improve the aesthetic of any store and even increase trade performance as a result. And it doesn’t even have to cost the earth. Simple technologies that can make running an “old fashioned” shop every bit as sophisticated as the latest online experience, from simple and easily implemented loyalty schemes, to integrated and well-executed handheld technologies that work seamlessly across store, putting the power of the internet into the hands of the shop floor worker, one only has to walk into a branch of Shuh, for instance, to see how technology can and does add to the shopping experience. And the number of consumers in their stores reflects how well the shop is run.

Add in to this mix technologies for managing in store promotional media, from printed materials to digital signs, dynamic pricing and pricing reflective of who is in store, what the time is, even the weather outside and a store can be every bit as sophisticated as any online ecommerce environment and often at a fraction of the cost.

Experiential stores: an alternative future?

Then of course there’s the experiential future of retail stores. A showroom with the showbiz added in, where food is demonstrated, clothes can be tried on, just like the old days, but perhaps with modern twists offered by interactive mirrors and screens, or even just the option to get one’s hands on the “merch” before a purchase decision is made, there’s nothing quite like seeing, touching and smelling something, then dropping it in a big bag and walking out of the shop with it there and then, even if you’re not handing over a wad of cash, or physically “bending” your plastic at the till.

The future of retail stores

The modern world of endless choice and endless delivery options can be baffling but what’s clear is that despite all the changes in our world, a store with great displays, great offers and expertly implemented technology will always have a central place in the retail experience and when done well, consumers reward retailers with higher footfall, higher repeat visits and higher spend.

Here’s to that future.

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