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Why ditching the High Street requires a greater focus on customer service

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10th Dec 2014
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In what continues to be an ever-changing retail landscape, it seems that even more of the big, well known chains are deserting the High Street in favour of out of town locations. With the High Street once being the hive of activity, it now seems that the shopping centres and retail parks are attracting more and more customers than ever before, as the lure of extending opening hours and convenient parking provides a welcome relief from the hustle and bustle which has become a common trait of the traditional high street shopping experience.

We know that technology is driving this change, both in terms of physical shopping but also in the behaviour of shoppers too. The rising ‘click and collect’ mentality has driven many to see physical stores as merely a means to pick up the product, or a final ‘touch and feel’ before committing to buying. Many are utilising the internet and mobile world as their first destination to search and evaluate products and social media sharing via Twitter, Facebook and others adds further to the influence that shoppers experience before even stepping foot inside a store.

So what does this mean for the retailers who are ditching the High Street in favour of the shopping centres and retail parks? Some may think that it is a positive move that reflects the way shoppers now view bricks and mortar stores. I would like to challenge this view and suggest that it actually makes the job of maintaining the customer experience and resulting satisfaction, much harder to achieve. Here’s why.

A negative customer experience

We’ve all been in situations where we need to pop to a particular store and have a couple of destinations to choose from depending on other shopping we need to do, timing, parking etc. Sometimes, we might just prefer to pop to the smaller Boots store on the High Street instead of risking the queues in the larger store.  But what happens when there is only one to visit? What if the customer has a negative experience at that store? Could the store end up losing a customer completely if they have no option to at least try the service in an alternative store? Retail parks and shopping centres serve a large proportion of the marketplace, but there are still significant customers who can’t or don’t want to travel the distance and much prefer to hop on a bus and visit their local high street store. Could turning their back on the high street ultimately come at a heavy price if they lose customers too?

New territory for staff

A retail park or busy shopping centre provides a very different shopping experience than the traditional High Street, primarily because more customers are in a rush and there are less browsers. Appealing to the needs of a busy, time-poor customer is very different to a more leisurely shopper and staff may initially struggle to adapt if they aren’t given correct training and support. It’s less about the detailed conversations and advice that used to work so well on the high street and more about identifying what the customers needs and how you can help them in the most time effective way. Technology also places a big part in this too, as staff need to have the reliable, easy to use and practical equipment to assist with stock checks, customer enquiries, purchases and even checking online if the product isn’t available in store.

Adapting to a new retail environment

From a practical perspective, retailers who are embarking on an out of town or shopping centre location for the first time need to be aware that their IT needs may vary dramatically from their High Street operation. Networking, cabling, CCTV, wireless checkouts, Wi-Fi services are all considerations and in fact, the entire shop layout is likely to be very different. It is recommended that stores considering a move speak with a professional retail IT supplier, who can advise them on any issues which need addressing prior to the move. They can also review current IT equipment (if it is a store transfer rather than a new opening) to check that it will be compatible and run effectively in its new location.

Embracing technology

For retail parks particularly, it is important for retailers to embrace the technology driven nature of shopping and ensure that their customers will gain the same level of experience whether browsing, shopping online or opting for click and collect. It’s also important that these services are interlinked, so that even if they are in store, they can check availability in other stores or book a home delivery online. For example, an out of store location that has both in-store and online ordering facilities means that for larger items, customers can browse in store and then book for a home delivery. On the reverse side, a customer should also be able to browse online and reserve an item for collection at their local store of choice. The more a retailer can create a seamless, integrated experience, the more likely they are to retain and attract new customers.

In summary, I think it is a shame that many of our beloved brands are choosing to leave the High Street, but when they do, they must ensure that they can deliver the same and ideally, an improved, level of service and experience at their new location. Customers will naturally follow them, but if their IT and service levels fall, they risk losing this loyal custom to competitors who have placed a greater emphasis on maintaining a great shopping experience.

Alan Watson is MD of retail IT support at Barron McCann.  

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