The current division of the high street and online shopping experience is compelling customers to decide between making a purchase online or offline.

This siloed approach to sales might not be the best way for retailers to go about things owing largely to the high street’s instrumental role in driving online sales.

For a large number of retailers, their high street stores are beginning to act as a showroom to which a customer visits to experience a product. Later, this then enables them to make a decision as to whether they go back to the store to purchase the item or go online to gather more information and view a wider product range. With the high street store playing such a pivotal role in online sales, isn’t it time retailers merged the two channels to their benefit and that of their customers?

An integrated approach

There has long been the concept that online and offline retailers must compete against one another for business, even if they are, in fact, part of the same company. By pitting the two against each other, the high street has long fallen short and struggled to keep up with online retailers and the merits of high street stores have been forgotten.

Yet, while online retailers continue to see increased growth, there are several aspects of the retail experience that can only be provided by bricks-and-mortar stores, such as smelling, touching or tasting items. Therefore, with the majority of retailers in possession of both a high street and online presence, it is in their best interest to merge the two so online and offline activities aren’t viewed as disparate entities challenging one and another.

In 2019, this is something we will begin to see as retailers begin to use their online platforms as a tool to encourage consumers to try and buy instore. By using online mechanisms, stores can provide all the benefits of online, namely information which in itself provides the shopper with ‘confidence’, together with all the advantages of a high street store – the means to sample, try and experience the product.

Through the provision of digital information whether fixed via a podium and a large touchscreen monitor or an app which can be accessed on a customer’s mobile phone, the ability to learn what they need to make the purchase there and then.

However, should they decide not to purchase the item from the store and later, say from home, go to the store’s website, I would argue that the sale should still be attributed to the physical store. It is my view, shared by many store managers, unsurprisingly, that sales should be assigned to the place where the customer made their initial enquiry.

And if this is not achieved through programming, customers can be asked the question ‘where did you first see the product?’. For example, if a customer goes into a store to enquire about and try on some items, but then uses the retailer’s website to make the final purchase, the sale should ‘belong’ to the store. This is owing to the fact that it is where the purchase originated and where the necessary information needed to influence the decision was derived.

Again, it is only my view, but retailers must start to ask questions where the business came from, where the customer saw the product and where they got the information and inspiration from to buy it in order to correctly identify the impact bricks-and-mortar stores have on online sales. I think they will be astonished by the results.

What does 2019 have in store? (pun intended)

Within the next two years, we will begin to see more and more companies exploiting the fact that they are a merged business. As the online and offline shopping experience become unified, high street retailers will use their stores to focus on creating better shopping experiences and opportunities for the consumer, so that when they do come to the store, a larger percentage will buy rather than just browse.

This can be achieved largely through the implementation of new technology to provide product information and the use of AI to offer customers a more personalised shopping experience. With this change in strategy, online and offline will be seen as one and the same, and whether consumers buy in the store or through the retailer’s online presence will make no difference.

In my opinion, the phrase “the death of the high street” will also cease to be used as online and offline stop competing against each other. Instead, we will talk about an “adjustment of the high street” as it adapts to the changing ways in which society shops and retailers take a more holistic approach. With the two channels no longer vying for the same sales, high street stores will be able to focus on getting customers back into the store by improving the customer experience and thereby increasing sales, whether they are made instore or via their online platforms.

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