In this opinion piece, Edge Hill University’s marketing expert Professor Kim Cassidy highlights three lessons from the pandemic that struggling retailers can use to help boost sales when planning for an unpredictable Christmas shopping period.
There’s never been a more important time to understand the strains and pressures that our high streets are under as they continue to recover from the pandemic and try to get customers back into the habit of shopping in-person.
English high streets have been free of lockdowns and Covid-19 safety measures since the spring, but retailers haven’t seen an increase in sales to match the increase in freedom. The reality is that in the wake of the pandemic, empty units are common with store vacancies at the highest level since 2013 and 69% of UK consumers now do at least half of their non-food shopping online according to research by Springboard.
So how do high street shops persuade consumers to leave the comfortable homes they have spent so much time and money on during the pandemic and come out to shop? And is it possible to bring them back permanently rather than just for a few weeks over Christmas?
I’ve been advocating for some time that UK high streets need to change in a range of ways to bring customers back, but to make things easy I’ve identified three legacies of lockdown that high street shops can keep to boost sales at practically no cost.
The first step is to refocus on some of the basics of marketing. As well as offering excellent service and responding quickly to changing needs, businesses need to communicate with consumers via social media, a channel that remains popular with shoppers. The independent retailers that make up so much of our high streets have never had such easy access to advertising and mass marketing, and they must take advantage of it. For many, investing just a small amount of time in posting on social media can enable businesses to instantly promote products and events to local, national and international audiences, and it’s all for free. I worry that many of the businesses who engaged with social media during the pandemic saw it as a one-time thing and have given up now that lockdown is over. They must not let this happen.
Secondly, I’d like to see businesses working together and collaborating to reinforce a distinctive place identity. Whether that’s selling local products in independent shops, highlighting the good work of other businesses or organising large-scale events – it all helps to create a buzz about a local area. Traditional retailers need to collaborate with leisure, tourism and heritage attractions to create innovative experiences that will excite consumers.
I’ve seen numerous examples of high streets banding together to support one another. Here in the North West, businesses on Smithdown Road in Liverpool recently banded together for the ‘Smithdown Festival’ with pubs, shops and restaurants hosting live music and events. By pooling resources and promotional materials, they were able to spread the wealth and create a buzz about the local area.
Lastly, high street shops need to think about what online retailers simply can’t offer. That means offering in-person services like personalised shoppers, classes, talks and meet-ups. All things that simply cannot be replicated online.
Prior to the pandemic some retailers had started to make changes to their business models to bring customers back to the high street. Local butchers offering butchery classes or clothes retailers running dressmaking courses. This work must continue and accelerate for shoppers to be drawn back to the high street in large numbers.
The overall picture is hopeful, in the wake of the pandemic consumers are keen to buy local and support their communities, but the pressure is on businesses large and small to show the public why the high street is still a great place to be and why they should shop there.
Professor Kim Cassidy shared these ideas with the recent Newark and Sherwood District Council Economic Growth Conference attended by over 100 business leaders, politicians and policy makers.
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