Will the High Street evolve as a Pre- and Post-sales or Market Research Tool like Social Media?

Havoc is the word that comes to mind when one reads about the post-Xmas meltdown of top retailers like Jessops and HMV, with so many job losses and uncertainty around the existence of other businesses and of the high street in general.

At the same time the swords are out again against online retailers (like Amazon and eBay), who are being blamed for these job losses and for dragging consumers away from the high street.

So what exactly is happening to the high street? Is it really online retailers causing the damage or are bricks-and-mortar businesses failing to successfully convert into companies that combine a high street and online presence? Is every retail shop going through same decline?

If we look at HMV and Jessops, they were already struggling to survive due to the advent of the digital content distribution era, where buying music and developing photos from shops became things of past. These businesses have been giving profit warnings now for three or four years and their failure to innovate caused their ultimate demise.

But does this mean the end of the high street, as many renowned retailers are going into administration? Will high streets become ghost towns with a few coffee shops with free Wi-Fi and charity shops, or will they evolve to allow a different way of shopping?

For the answer to this we have to look at bigger picture. I have picked some positive examples and experiments being undertaken by some successful retailers in order to remain in, or make a mark on, the high street.
The first one is John Lewis. Despite repeated profit warnings from their immediate competitors like M&S, Top Shop, and H&M, John Lewis has remained at the top of its game by offering unique and quality products with a five-year warranty (for white goods and electronics products) to its customers.

The second one is Apple, who, true to its brand image, is keen to redefine the customer experience by giving them a free hand to play with its products, as well as excellent customer service in its stores, and keeping the online and offline price the same! Not many people know this, but Apple, with no official social network channel, collects its offline store usage data to improve their products and services i.e. use their store for market research!

The third type of examples or experiments are from online marketplace eBay and search giants Google, who both have taken an initiative to open popup stores in high streets or within existing retail giants, mainly to do pre-sales, where people can try, scan, play around and ask questions before buying things online!

The fourth type of experiment is from again Google. They are working with high street retail stores to deliver products on the same day i.e. the consumer can order a product online and it can be delivered the same day by the nearest offline store!

It’s worth noting that Jeff Bezos from Amazon categorically denied that Amazon is intending to open high street stores to cater to their consumers, citing high cost and a lack of obvious immediate need. In addition, Amazon have launched a price comparison app to scan any offline product’s image to get cheapest online price.

Overall, despite the reluctance of online retail giants like Amazon to enter the high street zone, consumers like to experience things before buying and retailers need to capture real customers’ data and behaviour; I don’t think the high street will disappear from the map or will become a giant coffee shop with free Wi-Fi for book or newspaper reading on tablets or smartphones. I think it will evolve as a home to those retail giants who can change to meet current consumer demands of high quality with durability, like John Lewis, or can host stores with pre or post sales (i.e. delivery) or subtle market research facilities, like Apple, and new initiatives taken by eBay and Google, such as a Facebook page or twitter channel, where businesses interact with their customers to educate and/or provide post-sales support for their products. However, the whole transition will be very painful, with many job losses and old beloved brands disappearing from the market; and on the retailer’s parts there will be lots of hard work to win digitally-equipped consumers.