The best thing to come out of this summer’s World Cup – aside from a renewed confidence in a habitually underwhelming national football team – was the boost that England’s good tournament run gave to the British retail sector.

As the Three Lions outperformed the usual expectations, sales of beers, barbecue supplies, and big-screen TVs saw the feel-good factor spread from homes to the high street. However, while the strong summer showing gave retail bosses plenty to cheer about, it has also brought the long-term problems facing traditional British retailers into sharper focus, with a steep decline in sales and serious difficulties reported by an array of household names.

In the last month alone we have had more reports of financial difficulties from the likes of John Lewis, River Island, B&Q and Shop Direct – owner of digital brands Very and Littlewoods – with some seeing as much as a 99 percent drop-off in revenue streams.

This is a worrying, if unsurprising, trend for Britain’s larger, more established retailers, as the results of our latest research conducted with YouGov indicate that 49 percent of British consumers are now unlikely to go to a large retailer first when purchasing a specific item.

While sales are down for larger retailers it doesn’t mean to say that consumers haven’t simply stopped spending their money. Rather, their habits and expectations are continuing to shift.

For instance, 43 percent of shoppers would consider shopping with an independent over a larger retailer to feel treated like a valued customer rather than just a number. With this in mind, it’s little wonder that almost three quarters of British shoppers want the government to do more to back the growth of independent retailers in the coming years.

The challenge for independent retailers – to capitalise on the shifting trends in consumer attitude – is by no means insurmountable. Independents already differentiate themselves from larger retail brands by being the kind of store that offers customers a niche product set coupled with a more personalised experience, and they need to reflect this in the marketing materials they produce and the messages they send to their customer base.

They can go one better by proving that they can adapt quickly to the ever-changing needs of the contemporary consumer, demonstrating a level of agility that is simply unfeasible for many larger high street brands.

For independents to truly maximise the opportunity that has been created by the lethargy of the larger retailers, investing in digital is fast becoming a requirement rather than a mere recommendation. Alongside providing better value for money and a more personal customer service, what customers really want is the ability to shop in the way that best suits them.

The popularity of online retail is rising rapidly, with a record 18.2 percent of all consumer spending in retail made digitally according to the latest ONS figures and 39 percent of customers surveyed by Pure360 preferring to do all their shopping online as it makes their lives easier.

There is a growing demand for an Amazon-like online experience across all brands, an expectation of the kind of personalisation and customer service that comes with it regardless of the size of the brand, which means that even bricks and mortar boutiques need to harness the benefits of multi-channel retail by offering such options as synchronised online-to-offline shopping baskets and tailored post-purchase support. This is something independents can achieve, but only if they invest in the right kind of technology.

Independents must also ensure they are nurturing the right kind of customer loyalty, avoiding the habitual, passive loyalty so characteristic of faltering traditional retailers and instead fostering active loyalty by winning consumers’ trust along with their wallets. This is another area where Amazon is so successful, with a third of customers identifying them as a favourite brand according to a recent report from the Direct Marketing Association.

The value of customers who shop on a ‘heart-over-habit’ basis cannot be understated. Their loyalty is built on trust and bettered through a combination of utility, accessibility and relevance, and retailers need to be careful to communicate their usefulness and relevance in the right way.

Again, the solution is digital; email marketing continues to emerge as a clear marketing preference for consumers, operating in that sweet spot between the inconvenience of a physical mail-out and the invasive feel of a direct message or text. People know where they stand with email and trust it as a channel for delivering useful materials in a timely manner that doesn’t feel intrusive.

It remains to be seen what happens to the high street as we know it, but what is clear is that independent retailers now have a golden opportunity to thrive in this challenging retail climate. It’s possible even for the smallest teams to earn themselves a large, loyal following by exceeding expectations and achieving great results.

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