More than shelf stacking: Let’s move on from our retail past

And the bad news is…

It sometimes seems as if every single month brings with it more predictions of doom and gloom in the UK retail sector. The British Retail Consortium (BRC) seems to record declining levels of retail employment each quarter without fail – in the last three months of 2018 it reported 70,000 less jobs than at the same time in 2017.

And according to recent research from R3Intelligence the amount of shop space in the UK has shrunk by more than a quarter from 157 million square metres in 2008 to 114 million square metres in 2015. It seems that just as these very traditional ways of measuring retail ‘strength’ continue to go only one way from year-to-year, the headline writers will never tire of the ‘Retail in Crisis’ story.

However, it seems increasingly problematic to envision retail only in terms of (mainly) women stacking shelves in units on the high street – this is emphatically not what 21st century retail is going to look like. This is what 1950s retail looked like. The statisticians need to find some other key performance indicators because the ones being used currently look ever more dated and stale.

Likewise, consumers don’t need to be told that shops are closing – they know because they are the people who are not going into them anymore. Consumers don’t need to be told that fewer people are working in shops – they know because they are the people who are ordering their clothes/books/food via online rather than getting a store worker to put it through the till for them on the high street.

What the BRC refers to as ‘frontline staff’ are going to be the first to go because so much of what they do can be done so much better in other ways. If it was ever considered to be a good use of someone’s time to go round a large shop manually and laboriously changing pricing tags on all the shelves every day it definitely isn’t anymore. For instance, automatic shelf edge labels can enable someone in a back office to reset prices and special offers across a shop at the touch of a button. People now get their retail advice not from a complete stranger in a shop but from a shared, like-minded, social community on their digital devices.

What would bring people back to the high street?

As professional services firm Deloitte points out in a 2019 retail trends piece a “store based past” is giving way to a “digital future” with “fewer and better stores”. Recent research done by ABC Finance showed what it is that people do want in their retail environments whilst also highlighting which shops are doing very well thank you – vape shops, the whole of the beauty sector, cafes, convenience stores, barbers, healing and treatments to name a few.

So while the usual glaring ironies were there (75% of respondents claim to be sad that the high street is in decline while simultaneously 38% say all their purchases are online and 20% of them claim to visit their local high street very infrequently) a quarter of those surveyed said  that more food and drink options would bring them back, 20% noted that shops which also offer experience-based retail could tempt them while green spaces and flexible working units along with improved technology were also popular.

Retail Utopia – coming to a High Street near you

It would be interesting to see some of the research coming from the BRC and others more fully reflecting the changes we all know are happening and not endlessly bemoaning a past that is resolutely not coming back. It’s not all bad in retail land.