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Is this the end of the high street as we know it? The UK has seen many high profile names leave its once loved high streets.  The latest headline is House of Fraser. 31 out of its 59 stores in the UK and Ireland are closing by next January. But is this a symptom in common with the other stores that closed or is it a specific case? The British department store was the bastion of the high street for decades. Selling everything from designer fashion, to housewares, to luggage, and even a cup of tea, they were the one-stop-shop for everything you might need for your home and lifestyle.

 

And herein lies the problem. They were there for the British lifestyle, but that lifestyle changed. The increase in online meant that people were not bound by geography for their shopping. A few clicks and their towels or dress were on their doorstep the following day. Whippet Associates previously wrote about the online shopping experience 4 years ago and in many ways it illustrated the differences between online channels for large department stores and more dedicated online channels.

Is this the end of the high street as we know it?

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The shift towards online shopping also meant that convenience became a key driver. Now you could shop at several stores without leaving the comfort of your own home. You could browse for the same item across different stores and choose the best offer. In effect, the original drivers of quality and locality gave way to one thing only: Price. With price the principle decider, more expensive brands suddenly seemed a lot more expensive when the web results were in for that toaster or floral dress. Suddenly the upper-mid market felt the pinch. They had to shift their business model from only quality and dependability to convenience, user experience and choice. All the attributes linked to online retail. Of course the only attribute that shopping through your laptop or tablet cannot provide is a sensory experience and it seems this key, crucial USP got so overlooked by so many.

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So why did House of Fraser face such a vicious culling of its bricks and mortar outlets? The main tricks physical stores have over their online counterparts is the touchy feely experience consumers demand. Just having your stock out on racks might be easier for staff but it ends up resembling a bran tub sale in a matter of seconds. The ‘Lifestyle’ element has disappeared. The garments, products, labels need to be celebrated.  They need to be the highlight soprano in an opera Aria. Sadly this vital USP for stores got overlooked by nearly every High Street store facing difficulties or closure.

 

The usual layout for a department store, no matter the name, is perfumes, shoes and handbags on ground, Menswear in the basement or at the back of the ground floor, womenswear basics first floor, womenswear fashion (labels) on 2nd and housewares and a café on top. This has been the cast in stone approach since the inception of the department store.

 

They did not move with the times. The online store was almost treat as a separate entity, and not a valuable commodity in the whole retail experience. The lack of integration between the two experiences left the customer making a rational decision for one or t’other. As Anna Faris as Shelley said: “The eyes are the nipples of the face”, so too is the ground floor for nearly every department store. With Café culture taking hold, the perfect storm was created for department stores to take full advantage. A customer defined experience for browsing, collecting their online orders, even ordering their future purchases online linked with café culture should have been at the heart of the ground floor. Here customers could see displays by their leading labels, have say a recognised name coffee shop concession and the relocation of the store’s top floor to the browsing area, where they can drink out of the cups they can buy metres away all in complete room settings like the home they wish they had.

 

One London department store famous for a yellow bag has taken this to the max with swanky cocktail bars, hip sushi Taberus and cafes to sip coffee and people watch that wouldn’t be out of place in Milan.

"The ‘Lifestyle’ element has disappeared. The garments, products, labels need to be celebrated."

The standard department store could have done well to take a peak at its competitors, which sadly you get the nagging feeling that it failed to do until it was too late. And herein lies another issue. Arrogance. Some had had their own way for decades and their arrogance in the market place is simply astonishing. The “We are ______” attitude might ultimately be what cost them their business. Had they looked globally, at the best in the business, shown their buying teams a little more direction, merchandised a little more cleverly, not treat their customers with such dystopian animosity by providing them with the sort of retail experience you get from buying a can of beans from Tesco, perhaps they could have kept their businesses flourishing.

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Their physical presence was their greatest asset. They needed to take their customer on a journey and fall in love with their brand and the labels they offer. Incentivise the customer to come in and collect with extra bonus points, free gifts, create fashion events in the fashion departments that are more than just a few fairly good looking students donning some clothes off the racks (We’ve all been to a few ‘VIP’ evenings and they are only remembered for the anxiety and awkwardness of it all). Interactive sessions with staff and customers on how to wear, the Gok Wan effect (did we just say that?), but in suburban and provincial areas this resonates.

 

Homewares in a realistic but aspirational setting, use podium manequin settings with items across all departments and labels, after all this is a department store where everything can be found under one roof. Maximising every single second that customer spends on your side of the front doors.  

 

With hindsight, they say it is easy to pick fault, yet many of these are basic retail rules that even though they may have written them, they certainly did not adhere to.

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So here we are, looking forward to the next wave of retail experiences. Some online stores such as Modcloth and Amazon are, ironically, now opening bricks and mortar sites for customers to interact with their brand. Modcloth’s ‘fit shops’ are being rolled out across the ‘states’, a savvy decision given the fit critical and plus sizing of many of their garments. We will see if this is the future for retail. Certainly the High Street could breathe a sigh of relief if it were. Even if it were with different players.