eCommerce can be the saviour of London high streets

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Dan Whytock

Dan Whytock is Managing Director of DownYourHighStreet.com, which hosts products that were previously unavailable online, on top of managed services for high street shops. He explains why the digital age doesn't have to mean the death of the high street.

It has been a long and difficult few years for the UK high street. We have already seen numerous store closures and the loss of many big-name brands, and there may be more - struggling retailers, including Debenhams and Marks and Spencer, have reported disappointing sales figures over the 2018 Christmas period.  

As more people order goods from the comfort of their own home and the all-important metric of footfall drops, we often see the Internet as the ‘problem’. But, this is down to a lack of understanding of how digital works in the retail environment, particularly in regard to London. An Ecommerce Foundation study found that 93% of online consumers also shop in physical stores, compared to 90% in 2016, so the trend isn’t necessarily heading one way.

It seems more people are beginning to realise the limitations of online shopping, and the importance of face-to-face interactions in their daily lives. From our offices based in Oxford Street, we see first-hand the volume of people that pours out onto the street everyday - you certainly wouldn’t think there was a problem with footfall at first glance. People want the best of both worlds!

Beyond the thoroughfare

But London retailing isn't just about Oxford and Regent Street. There are many high streets in boroughs across the capital experiencing very different fortunes. How can digital and eCommerce be used to breathe new life into the high streets and save established brands - as well as champion smaller, independent retailers? 

eCommerce can actually breathe new life into high streets

Oxford Street might be the obvious choice for tourists, but the more familiar people become with London, the more they want to go off the beaten track and find unique local independents. They just don’t know where to start. However, there are digital solutions that can be explored to help bring a larger audience to these retailers.

For example, let's say Google Maps had an icon for ‘Boutiques’. Then the world could find hidden gems normally only the locals or the well-connected are advised of. A Tube Map especially for shopping could showcase the types of retailers that are near each station. 

Online shop windows

Marketplaces are an existing way of bringing in more sales. For online sellers, the likes of Amazon and eBay have opened up a new revenue stream. However, smaller bricks-and-mortar boutique retailers are likely to get lost among the sprawling marketplace of online-only sellers selling thousands of products. Specialised online marketplaces are needed to provide a digital shop window helping smaller sellers stand out from the crowd; they're also more cost-effective for smaller budgets.

DownYourHighStreet.com, for example, focuses specifically on independent bricks and mortar high street retailers, allowing retailers to create or integrate existing product inventories quickly, with ease. 

Utilise specialist online marketplaces to get your products seen

Beyond digital developments, to survive as an independent in London you need to know your USPs. Your shop window has to invite people in to shop, and they need to know what’s in-store before they enter. Bigger brands often use entertainment - like Topshop’s idea of having a DJ at the entrance to create an experience, and make the visit ‘Instagrammable’ for the modern consumer. 

The Boxpark retail and leisure scheme is an example of bringing together independent retailers, events and food all in one place to bring new life to struggling boroughs. The development has ridden the wave of regeneration in Shoreditch, Croydon, and now Wembley. 

Other ways London retailers can harness e-commerce in 2019

Enhance bricks-and-mortar service for the digital age

A positive in-store experience that promotes and integrates its digital channels well will encourage customers to seek that retailer out for their next online purchase. Larger retailers such as John Lewis and Apple use their shops more like showrooms, and offer extra customer service solutions such as technical support, personal shopping and home design services. Smaller independent retailers could easily adopt this approach and provide customers with expertise-focused extras that support and enhance the online shopping experience.

Use online data to better understand customers

Websites, eCommerce channels and social media don't just present opportunities to reach a wider audience - they're a means to interact and study the shopping behaviours of customers to help tailor both in-store service and online offering. Social media in particular is the most cost-effective way to conduct valuable market research and behaviour studies - retailers can analyse page analytics and activity patterns, the types of posts followers respond to, conduct polls on customer likes and dislikes, while also keeping an eye on their competitors.

Digital doesn’t necessarily mean abandoning traditional high street shopping. It can help retailers strengthen the relationships they have with their customers, wherever they are - and it doesn’t have to cost the earth. With easier, more affordable access to eCommerce, London's high streets can thrive once more.