Napoleon is supposed to have described Britain as a ‘nation of shopkeepers’ (the attribution is disputed), and it is certainly true that the UK’s commercial power has been formidable historically. At the present moment, however, retailers are awakening to the uncomfortable fact that, in order to survive in a world where competition and commoditisation are ever greater and consumers are demanding more and more, it is going to be necessary to innovate.
Gone are the days when country-wide store presence in convenient, well-placed locations was enough to rein in customers, without any further effort at differentiation – and the fate of BHS is a testament to this. Consumers nowadays tend to spend their money on leisure activities and experiences (like travel) instead of retail shopping, and recent statistics hammer home this state of affairs. Retail sales volumes decreased by a staggering 1.3% in March, despite the Bank of England’s forecasted GDP growth of 2.2% for this year as a whole; and with added government pressures such as raised business rates and apprenticeship levies, a maximum of 20% of industry profitability could be threatened.
Part of the problem for retail is also, of course, the domination of the market by online and delivery services like Amazon, whose wares even extend now – with the introduction of Amazon Pantry – to groceries. All of this has resulted in a commoditisation of goods which, for the most part, erases the niche once enjoyed by high-street retailers. Almost literally, anything that can be bought in a store can also (and more conveniently) be purchased via Amazon or one of its competitors.
It is not all doom and gloom for retailers, however, if the challenge of innovation is embraced. While BHS (for example) may have failed to connect personally with customers or to incentivise in-store visits in any way, other companies, like Waterstones, have recognised the need to capitalise on the key point of differentiation which high-street shopping still retains: the visceral experience of the physical environment. Waterstones’ new outlet on Tottenham Court Road, for example, boasts a bar and a pop-up cinema, attractions which a virtual environment quite simply cannot emulate.
Such innovations are the key to survival for retailers. To summarise, a shop can no longer be a place just to buy products; it must make the process of browsing and buying an enjoyable incentive in itself. And a final boost of morale to retailers: it is very telling that Amazon, the virtual retailer par excellence, is choosing to trial a physical Amazon bookstore in its native Seattle, with plans for up to 400 shops in the US in the future.