The start of 2020 brought yet more stories of doom and gloom on the high street.

While it’s relatively easy to identify the problems, the solutions are far less clear. Search for “high street decline” on Google News and you’ll discover a series of stories about uncoordinated campaigns to rejuvenate the in-store retail – from rumours the government will reduce business rates to calls for a digital sales tax.

Other stories feature local retailers clubbing together to offer discount days to entice customers back in to the area, while others call for ATMs to be made free to use.

In the rush to assign blame and broadcast top-down solutions, a quieter voice is often ignored. That is the actual voice of the customer. What kind of experiences are going to actually attract someone in store? Rather than a one-size-fits-all solution, how can retailers understand the local trends that are going to trigger a visit?

The positive news is that all the information needed to transform the high street’s fortunes is available thanks to the unprecedented digital signals being given by customers.

It’s time to listen to them.

Understand local environments

In today’s world, you are where you live. Your postcode is increasingly a more important determinant of behaviour than traditional demographics.

Each postcode location and audience segment has its own competitive landscape and decision-making triggers. Indeed, Google trends based on search engine history can reveal a rich tapestry of local behaviour and interests waiting to be uncovered, whether it’s a trend for meatless burgers in Margate or knitwear in Newark. Brands are fighting for the attention of potential customers but are ignoring these vital signals.

While retailers tear their hair out about internet businesses stealing market share, a crucial truth is missed. The internet is becoming increasingly mobile-driven with online searches driving our real-world behaviour.

In fact, 50 percent of all searches now carry local intent. This is someone saying they want to visit a physical manifestation of a brand. Yet despite this, most retailers will not be visible on key paid or organic search terms at the local level.

Tackle the basics

The fundamentals are actually very simple. When a potential customer searches for your business, you need to be both visible and accurate – nobody is loyal to a brand that offers up inaccurate opening hours or phone numbers that are never answered. 

Another key element of getting the basics right is to manage store reviews. Brands should show they care about the in-store experience. Crucial to this is answering reviews and solving issues.

Even more crucial is doing this rapidly. If someone walked into your shop to complain, you wouldn’t sit back with your arms folded, refusing to reply for a day. Although you can’t expect all reviews to be positive, at least by answering negative reviews in a timely fashion you demonstrate that you care about customer service.

A recent study by Google showed that 55 percent of millennials will ignore brands that don’t have visibility in search results or those with poor reviews. Even if millennials are not your current target audience, they will be at some point.

This reinforces the need for brands to change and meet expectations in an evolving space. Retailers are continuing to make the same mistakes or at least continuing to behave in the same way but are still questioning why performance is declining.

The content of Google reviews are clear signals on where brands are underperforming and underdelivering. You’ll notice that most store reviews relate to customer service, which in turn leads back to the store experience.

Tailor your approach

When brands want to generate interest, raise awareness, and encourage a visit to their store, are they speaking directly to their audience? In over 90 percent of instances, brands use blanket national messaging without considering the decision-making factors for each audience.

To grab the users’ attention, brands have to be relevant to them and add value – and that value can come in different shapes in sizes. Competitors can differ by location, parking can differ by location, economic factors are different by location, and the list goes on.

Add in different age groups for each location and, in some cases, the difference between male and female audiences. All of a sudden there are tens of campaigns needed for each location. Central marketing teams are not built in a way that can execute with such granularity. A truly local approach is needed.

Deliver on your brand promise

If a retailer has managed to get the user into store, are they delivering on the experience? The in-store experience for most national brands is the same no matter where you are. Local factors and different needs will have rarely been taken into consideration.

The products, the prices, and the store layout will all be comfortably familiar – yet the customer service is often substandard. Brands need to ask themselves:

  • Why should our customers want to visit our stores?
  • What are they getting from the in-store experience?
  • Are customers getting a great personal experience overall?

In most cases the answer is no.

This inconsistency has evolved from internal teams working in silos, not communicating and not working together. It is imperative the brand and retail team work closely to ensure consistency in brand delivery.

Collaboration is also vital between the CRM team and the media team to craft effective local messaging for specific locations.

Rediscover the lost art of customer service

Brands that sell white goods, TVs, and laptops tend to excel with their customer service. The staff are knowledgeable and provide advice on which product is right for each customer’s needs.

However, in other areas – notably fashion retail, footwear, and mobile phone shops – the service is often poor. There are even instances where the service can cause customers to leave negative online reviews that can hurt the chances of attracting new customers into the store.

Imagine a world where these brands instead offer a personalised, tailored experience for customers based on an understanding of the local trends and interests. In many ways, it is a return to the values that retailers had in previous decades.

This was before big department stores disrupted this way of working, which in turn was disrupted by internet retailing. By going back to the future, retailers can start to fight back and provide a reason to return to the physical store.

At the heart of all of this is remembering to listen to customers. The digital local-first world has given us all the tools to fight back.

Let’s use them.

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