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The High Street is dead. Long live the High Street.

In 2016, 15 UK shops closed their doors every day. Shopper numbers fell by as much as 10%, with 10.1% of shops sitting vacant, according to the British Retail Consortium.

The story is a familiar one: brands large and small losing out to online competitors crushing in-store sales.

But the death of the High Street is no way inevitable. And brands are embracing new insights to drive footfall into stores.

In 2017, there exists a long list of brands boasting enviable sales-per-square-feet figures thanks to their adaptability and design-led thinking; not least Tumi, Apple and Whole Foods Market. Retailers ready to embrace the same digital and omnichannel technology as their online competitors have a chance to survive and thrive in the future.

The key: building authentic, compelling customer experiences to rejuvenate high street traffic.

Make like Howard Schultz

Starbucks was a middling coffee brand before owner Howard Schultz ‘refounded’ the coffee shop as the ‘third place’ for consumers – a pitstop between work and home, with an ambience all of its own. Schultz built a brand experience for consumers so that they had more reason to visit his shops than just coffee alone.

Today, a sense of place – an end-to-end brand experience – is an essential differentiator for those High Street retailers looking to compete with cheaper stores online. Australian apothecary brand Aesop design their stores meticulously to reflect local heritage. Soap specialists Lush involve customers when crafting their products in-store, a nod to their handmade heritage.

Compelling in-store creative of this type should be a priority for all brands, not just those selling premium or gift products. That includes FMCG, says Heinz European President Matt Hill: “There has to be scope for creativity in store,” he says. “Our challenge is to create real theatre – interrupt the autopilot.” Disruption that drives sales could be as simple as hosting in-store galleries and exhibitions, or scent marketing – piping an attractive smell into aisles as Subway is accused of doing. Whatever their tactic, branded stores must work hard to build an attractive, engaging narrative for customers that is more than the sum of parts of their product or services.

Embrace technology

Typically seen as the enemy of high street shopping, digital and online technology is integral to many stores that are building immersive brand stories.

Burberry’s flagship store on Regent Street broke the mould back in 2012 with 500 speakers, interactive mirrors and RFID (radio-frequency identification) chips in their garments. As customers walked around the store with their intended purchases, screens told the story of the item and a little history of the brand, shifting the act of shopping from a transactional purchase to an emotional investment.

In the automotive world, Audi have changed the definition of a showroom, allowing customers to customise their car in virtual reality. And in the home appliance world, Pirch allows customers to use electrical appliances in store, as they would at home. Each levers technology in a way that gives consumers a reason to return to their store – boosting brand equity to encourage future purchases.

Creative technology of this type needn’t be restricted to premium brands. The IKEA app is designed to complement, and speed up, shopping in the store. Starbucks has closed the loop on its ‘third space’ concept with the introduction of the in-app ordering service. In this way, even convenience can constitute a compelling brand story. In the case of both Starbucks and Pirch, the retailer uses mobile technology to extend the brand experience before and beyond consumers’ in-store interactions – transforming brand equity into consumer choice.

Even the smallest retailers stand to gain by embracing omnichannel and thinking digitally to offer engaging, friction-free sales. Integrated POS systems like Stripe make accepting mobile payments and email remarketing simple and cost-effective. As more sellers accept digital payments, consumer expectation will shift; not offering the option will soon work against retailers.

Indeed, technological development means brands need to work harder to maintain visibility at all levels. In a post-UI (user interface) world, where consumers can search and shop for products using voice-activated devices like Amazon Go, customers must be able to recall brand names without seeing them, in order for the devices to buy those products for them. In this way, embracing mobile and online shopping is an imperative for retailers. Much better to be on the right side of history and be a business victor thanks to technology, rather than a victim of it.

Promote accessibility

Technology democratises customer experiences. Anyone can engage with any brand, anywhere in the world. In turn, accessibility is today an expectation for consumers. As stores focus on crafting their brand experiences in a bespoke space, this accessibility must extend to all ages and all abilities.

Using technology including specialised lighting and audio and visual support, it is possible to embrace customers with seen and unseen disabilities. This includes autism, for which spatial design can have a profoundly positive effect. Research on the effects of ageing for customers, and the way retailers can improve their shopping experience, has also gathered pace in recent years – important, given that the UK population is ageing quickly. At the very least, retailers should offer environments designed to work for those with limited mobility or vision, including simplified layouts, wide aisles and clear signage.

Revive the High Street

By building engaging experiences, promoting a sense of place, embracing technology and ensuring accessibility, high street brands have the opportunity to not only compete with online traders, but use their best tricks against them. Reports of the death of the UK High Street have been greatly exaggerated. But it’s up to brands to get customers interested once more, and in turn build a new type of high street shopping.

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