Friday 8 March 2019 3:40 pm

Technology can save the high street and future-proof the entire retail ecosystem

Ever since the first online transaction over a quarter of a century ago, we’ve been bombarded with a growing number of claims that the high street is dead and online is king.

The recent downfall of former offline strongholds such as BHS, Toys R Us, and House of Fraser are often cited as evidence that bricks-and-mortar shops are doomed, faced with the threat of online retailers.

However, if you ask me, the high street isn’t dying, it’s transforming. Aided by technology, the future lies in the convergence of offline and online, rather than pitting them against one another. Customers are already shopping in this way, with a recent study by Bazaarvoice showing that 82 per cent of smartphone users research online before purchasing in-store.

The deeply personal experience of discovering products in the “real world”, the ability to touch and feel the quality of physical goods and the opportunity to be inspired by the visual merchandising in physical spaces are still important aspects of the retail journey. Retailers who excel at merging the inspirational experiences of best-in-class offline spaces with the convenience of online shopping will be the ones to thrive.

So how is the tech landscape set to evolve over the next year in a way that will benefit the high street?

Looking first to retail in the far east, we’re observing a huge drive towards frictionless experiences across the entire customer journey, aided by technology. Ecommerce giants in China like Alibaba who continue to expand their bricks-and-mortar presence are actively pursuing augmented experiences in-store, allowing shoppers to “try on” products through headsets to aid with their purchase decisions.

From the introduction of robotic waiters to the popularity of payment via QR Codes and social shopping on WeChat, the offline experience is being streamlined to the ultimate degree.

In the western world and especially in Europe, we’re seeing a different evolution which focuses less on the “hard sell” in favour of a customer-centric approach which aids discovery. The physical shop is being transformed into a place for inspiration, a showroom of sorts which stimulates the senses and encourages customers to interact directly with the experts and products.

Bricks-and-mortar stores are increasingly being used as testing beds for retailers to experiment with new goods while simultaneously employing online services to meet customers’ needs quickly and efficiently. Ikea’s new city centre locations where customers can trial products in store before ordering online is the perfect manifestation of this. Online marketplaces like Trouva allow customers to virtually explore curated wares from independent boutiques across Europe.

While it’s hard to predict what 2019 will look like, one thing is abundantly clear. The offline experience is as important as ever for the consumer, and the best high street retailers are well aware of the power of technology to create the new wave of unforgettable physical journeys.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.