Friday, January 15News For London

How the click-happy consumer is killing bricks and mortar shopping

The High Street has been a key part of our nation’s style for a long time – but are we turning our backs and turning on our smartphones for online shopping?

Courtesy of Pexels/ JÉSHOOTS
51 per cent of online purchases in the UK are via a smartphone, causing strife for the physical High Street Courtesy of Pexels/

Trips to the shops with your parents as a toddler, or those first clandestine meetings with boys as a teen, and then eventually the trips where you buy what you need, rather than simply what you want. And yet footfall dropped one per cent in November according to the latest forecast from the British Chambers of Commerce, despite tempting Black Friday offers. Are these rites of passage changing? Where are the toddlers begging for a new toy, the gaggle of girls rushing past a similar gang of boys? And where am I, supposedly buying a ‘sensible’ dress for job interviews but actually trying on sequin skirts? We’re all online, that’s where.

What the drop in footfall once again makes clear is that the way the British consumer spends is changing. We’re eschewing the shops in favour of our laptops and smartphones. The fact is this: the average consumer has grown spoilt. We want shopping entirely on our own terms, and these terms are constantly changing. After all, the shoppers are calling the shots and it is now, more than ever, the age of the consumer. Instant gratification has become the name of the game and big brands are changing to adhere to this. Burberry has made their collection available to purchase online immediately after the show, and many brands are following suit. This is just one change dictated by the consumer.

We want the same dress in three potential sizes, quick delivery times to a location of our choosing at our designated time, and we want straightforward, flexible returns policies. Not only that, but we want our feedback heard instantly, too, and this has been facilitated by social media. Because the digital world has more scope to satisfy the insatiable whims of the consumer, many an e-commerce devotee has turned against traditional, physical stores.

Going digital

Dr Dimitrios Tsivrikos, a UCL Consumer Psychologist, attributes this move online to three key factors: “time-saving, price-comparison, and mobile phones.” Online shopping appeals to your average consumer because it enables them to shop without interrupting their day. As he put it, “with the advancement of technology and commerce, we are starting to expect things in a more instantaneous manner.” Again, that sense of the expectations of the consumer controlling everything.

Dr. Tsivrikos stated that “51 per cent of all online purchases in the UK are now done through a smartphone.” With the rise in smartphones, the consumer is able to shop on the go via the ever-evolving apps created by brands. Instagram’s shop-able adverts and Facebook Marketplace both allow users to shop straight from their favourite social media apps. It has really never been so easy to purchase on the go.

We also want something unique. Another element that I would add is that given the rise in fast fashion caused by our British high street, many shoppers turn to online shopping communities as an antidote. Online platforms such as Etsy and Not On The High Street provide their users with an easy approach to the retail equivalent of foraging: they connect independent sellers with the consumer, and in doing so both promote independent creators and bring the unique finds the consumer wants straight to their home. 

Etsy’s Communication Manager Emily Dean told me, “92 per cent of buyers say they come to Etsy to find things they can’t find anywhere else.” The emphasis is on unique items and a shared enthusiasm between seller and shopper. As Emily put it, “the direct communications and transactions buyers and sellers have on Etsy adds that human touch back into online shopping creating an increasingly collaborative economy.” Etsy has created a global marketplace, providing an exciting platform for jaded shoppers.

What shoppers want

Given that the consumer has everything at their fingertips, I reached out on Twitter. A poll I conducted there showed that 54 per cent of those asked are doing their Christmas shopping online. Twitter is crowded with people sharing their experiences of online versus physical shopping.

I also spoke to shoppers who do still choose to brave Oxford Street during the festive period. Jane, aged 53, told me that “online shopping has definitely changed the way I shop from groceries to electronics.” The majority of her Christmas shopping has been done online, with everything from books ordered via Amazon, and clothes ordered via ASOS and Zara arriving either in store or at home. Similarly India, 23, said that she chooses to shop online because “at the end of the working day I can’t face the shops”.

Jane conceded that “I probably shop more online, but do like to check things out in store before I buy if I can.” The desire to still see and feel the items in their physical form is something that shoppers remain connected to. Lynne, 24, prefers to shop in store because she likes to “touch and feel items, especially with clothes”. Dr. Tsivrikos explains this as a need for tactility, and asserts that it is greater amongst food and premium brands. “consumers like to have a form of physical contact,” he told me, “and they can feel a greater sense of connection to the brand when this contact is tactile in nature.”

Adapt to survive 

There remains, of course, hope for the big brands that can afford to compete. Schemes such as Click & Collect, where you can order online and collect in store at your earliest convenience, provide yet another seamless shopping experience. According to Dr. Tsivrikos, this is the third most popular digital service in the UK. He explains its success: “it allows retailers to connect the platforms of the online and the physical”. The customer is able to shop from wherever they are, but still gains a physical experience from visiting the store to collect. Brands such as John Lewis and House of Fraser have managed to compete with digital platforms by providing this service, which places the needs of the consumer very much at the forefront of their plans.

Many retailers are solving the issue of how to provide more unique services by incorporating pop-up artisans in their flagship stores. Topshop’s Oxford Circus flagship has an in-house embroidery service with Hand & Lock, as well as a stall for jewellers Little Smith to customise jewellery. They have expanded this collaborative effort to their beauty section with the BeautyMart, where shoppers can find unusual brands. By collaborating with independent companies they are able to provide a unique experience that competes with the likes of Etsy. In this sense, their flagship has become increasingly like a marketplace for different creators to sell their products, and whilst Topshop’s clothing remains at the forefront, they have turned their vast shop into a hub for collaborators. 

Dr. Tsivrikos remains optimistic about the future of the High Street in its physical form. Both Jane, the shopper I met on Oxford Street, and Dr. Tsivrikos forecast a similar fate for the High Street as more of a “social hub”, in Dr. Tsivrikos’s words. Jane told me that she thinks bricks and mortar shops will always have a place, but that this place will be “maybe just for looking and not for serious purchasing”. Even online marketplaces like Etsy must provide a physical presence with their regular Christmas pop-up shops. Etsy’s Emily told me: “our pop-ups are a great way for people to interact with the Etsy brand in a more physical way and as with our recent Etsy Made Local events, for local buyers and seller to interact face to face.” The need for a tactile experience is still in their minds.

The store will remain crucial to the overall marketing of a brand, as well as providing shoppers with a place where, according to Dr. Tsivrikos, “like-minded consumers can meet, engage and form relationships with each other.” In this sense it will become an experiential aspect of retail and a means of establishing a brand’s identity. “Consumers like to have a form of physical contact,” Dr. Tsivrikos asserts, “and they can feel a greater sense of connection to the brand when this contact is tactile in nature.” With many brands already acknowledging the importance of this connection, the High Street will continue to house those toddlers, teens and even a slightly tense me, for a little while longer.