Darwinism on the High Street and why talk of a retail apocalypse is fake news
Walk down virtually any High Street today and it doesn’t take too long to come across the sad sight of a once proud retail store, now shuttered and looking forlorn.
These are often iconic brands, they had a place in our lives, we enjoyed going there, spending time there. And now they’re gone; probably forever.
The headlines scream “retail apocalypse” and “death of the High Street” – we could actually be forgiven for believing what we read.
After all, according to statistics compiled by The Local Data Company, in 2017 5,855 UK High Street stores closed, with fashion and footwear outlets being the hardest hit.
Maplin Putney High Street
So, the death of the High Street is real and in future we will all be shopping online; cast as mere disciples of our online masters. Not quite.
Because that’s to miss a vital ingredient; here’s why.
It is true that with most of us now carrying smartphones wherever we go, online has become extremely adept at making the whole process of obtaining goods and services incredibly easy.
The ‘uberisation of society’ is now truly a reality; with just a few taps on our smartphone, a meal arrives or a taxi arrives or tickets to a concert turn up. Whatever we desire, the power of online brings it right to us whenever we wish.
But if you’ve ever tried getting a haircut online, you’ll know that this doesn’t hold true of everything.
The changing face of retail is, unlike the headlines, an incredibly complex process, with many different factors and influences impacting it in different ways.
However, fundamentally, what we are experiencing – albeit extremely rapidly – is an evolution, not a revolution.
Evolution, according to Charles Darwin, is the process by which species develop through a process of natural selection of the strongest.
So why is it that oft quoted external influences, such as Brexit, the weather, rising costs, rent and rates etc. in other words influences which affect all retail businesses, result in some surviving whilst others do not?
What we are witnessing is a natural culling of the weakest, to allow the strongest to survive and to allow growth through new entrants; more willing, more able to adapt to change.
“In the long history of humankind…those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed”
– Charles Darwin
Online spending in the UK continues to increase, the latest figures published by the Office for National Statistics showing that in May 2018, it had reached nearly 18% of total sales, up from just over 16% in the same period a year ago.
However, it would be a fallacy to conclude that this spells the end for the High Street.
For example, in research co-sponsored by IBM and NRF (National Retail Federation) in late 2017, 15,600 Generation Z were asked about their shopping preferences; in other words – what do Gen Z shoppers really want?
An astounding 96% said that they preferred to shop in store, underlining the role of online in many scenarios – research online, purchase in store. Oh, and if you didn’t think that gen Z matter much; by 2020 they will comprise 40% of the total consumer population.
For the true picture of what is happening, we need to look to ourselves (and the way we use technology), to discover what is really behind this retail evolution.
First and foremost, we are humans and being human carries with it some obvious implications; namely that we are fickle, we are unpredictable, we are imprecise – in other words, we are emotionally driven.
And above all, we are social beings.
Look at any town across the UK today and chances are that the hub of every community is the High Street. It is where we gather to mix, to socialise, to converse with each other, to exchange views and opinions, to eat, to drink, to relax.
Until recently, the success of those High Streets had been very much reliant on retail. And whilst it is true that the mix is changing – according to The Local Data Company in 2017 the biggest net growth on the High Street was amongst barbers, beauty salons and tobacconists – the reality is that good retail will always survive.
It’s just that our perception of what ‘good retail’ looks like has shifted. Where once we were satisfied if our size and colour were in stock, now we seek far more.
Primark Store, Gran Via, Madrid – seamlessly merging digital with physical
For those of us old enough to remember, hard though it may be to imagine, there was a time in history before the iPhone, before Facebook and before the internet.
Fast forward just a handful of years and welcome to the selfie age.
No longer is it sufficient just to visit a store, now we need to share the experience with our social network, we need to seek inspiration from our visit, we want all our senses to be stimulated, we want that seamless fusion of the physical with the digital.
We go to a store seeking advice, interaction, involvement, excitement. And in many cases, a bit of friction in the store experience (unlike online) can be a good thing – adding to the pleasure we derive.
In other words, we seek all the things which online cannot deliver.
As Roger Wade, MD of Boxpark once said; “Online is like watching fireworks on TV”.
The case for physical retail has never been stronger.
Undoubtedly there will be less space in the future and sadly, more CVAs, more administrations and more store closures almost seem an inevitability.
However, for those who master it, physical retail has never been a more exciting place to be.