Alistair Johnston, high street analyst and co-founder of Redlab, an independent company producing events in social innovation, has written an exclusive article for Digital by Default News on the importance of an online strategy for UK’s high streets if they are to survive.
If local government leaders want thriving town centres they must bridge the growing digital divide between retail chains and their town’s independents.
Chain retailers are today investing millions in technology, from mobile shopping, to in store augmented reality, to advanced customer analysis. Our research for Digital High Street 2013 revealed how far these technologies are from the reality of most independents. The lead they will bring to chains in terms of customer engagement and online sales will put already strained local businesses under even greater pressure. It will be the breaking point for many.
The reality is that without a sound online strategy most of your town’s independents will find it difficult to survive, let alone grow. The problem is, many don’t even know where to start. For digital inclusion to mean anything to local business, it must go beyond teaching residents to use email and a spreadsheet. Councils must find good people to engage with their retailers and teach them about social media and e-commerce. And that’s just a start.
“All physical retailers will have to grasp new technology for future survival,” states last year’s Experian Town Centre Futures 2020 report, developed with the Association of Town and City Management (ATCM). “Technological innovation is changing the way we behave, particularly in terms of how we communicate, and buy goods and services. This is likely to have far reaching consequences for the way we shop and use town centres.”
According to both the Experian report and a recent report by IMRG, mobile commerce (or m-commerce) offers a key opportunity for independent town centre retail. Over 73% of smartphone users use their phone while shopping, and chains like Starbucks are investing heavily in smartphone apps. However our research revealed that for stretched independents m-commerce is a step too far.
“Independent retailers have to grasp tablets and smartphones. The technology is now there for independents to compete, but the problem is implementation cost,” we were told by the award-winning retailer, Paul Turner-Mitchell.
“Local councils spend money trying to stem high street decline, and offer grants for start-ups. That’s great, but what about their town’s small struggling retailers? I’d like to see match funding for digital development. If we want a diverse, thriving high street we need public sector involvement.”
In two weeks time, local government will meet with leading independents at Digital High Street 2013. Wider digital inclusion will be firmly on the agenda, and the findings will be published as an ebook. We hope this will spark debate and important decisions at government level. Without inclusive thinking now, our town centres will fall into the digital high street divide.