The enduring role of the British high street is revealed in new research by Barclays, with two-thirds of shoppers still preferring to view valuable products in person before buying.
As the retail sector prepares for the impact of Brexit, The Barclays New Retail Reality report uncovered a desire for a new form of high street that is more diverse and makes better use of technology, while revealing that two thirds of the UK population want the government to prioritise the protection of British retailers and goods in Brexit negotiations.
Barclays head of retail and wholesale Ian Gilmartin said: “The British high street is part of what has made the UK great. Being a ‘nation of shopkeepers’ is ingrained in our cultural identity and consumer pride in the sector endures. Our research reveals that the public still see the high street as an essential part of the shopping experience and as a national treasure they want to see protected.
“Consumer confidence in the retail sector is continuing despite uncertainty caused by the Brexit vote, and there are opportunities ahead for retailers if they can maximise the opportunity of ‘Brand Britain’, both at home and abroad.”
Boosting the high street through technology and experiences
Demand for a vibrant, diverse high street remains strong, Barclays suggests.
In the next 12 months, consumers are more likely to shop in the high street branch of a national retailer than from the same retailer online (81% compared to 60%). They are also more likely to shop in the high street branch of a local or independent retailer (77%) than use a subscription delivery service (17%) or the mobile app of an internet only retailer (36%). Yet with the majority of shoppers (83%) also planning to shop online at an internet specialist in the next 12 months, competition is clear.
Investing more on technologies in-store would give high street retailers a further boost, the study posits. The research reveals that shoppers (65%) are eager to see more touchscreen technology. Newer, more experiential technologies are also popular: shoppers are more likely to visit a store kitted out with virtual reality (57%), smart fitting rooms (57%) or augmented reality (52%).
In addition, new payment technologies are highly rated by consumers, with many describing contactless (48%) and mobile payments (37%) as “life changing”. Appetite for the use of drones in retail is more muted, however, with around two-thirds of shoppers citing worries about security, privacy and collisions.
In another technological shift, shoppers are now five times more likely to use social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook to complain about a product than they were three years ago. And they want a quick response when they complain, with one in three (38%) expecting a complaint made via social media responded to within an hour.
To continue prospering, high streets also need to offer more diverse experiences. When asked what types of outlet people want to see more of on their high streets, more independent specialist retailers (44%) and independent cafes and restaurants (36%) topped the list. However, it is clear that shoppers remain price sensitive with discount stores (29%) being the third most popular option.
Ian Gilmartin added: “Consumer expectations are currently moving faster than retailer innovation. More investment is needed to keep consumers coming back for what they love – great British high street experiences.
“The conclusion from our research is that the key to success for many retailers is to offer a balanced high street and online offering, taking advantage of technological innovation in store to attract shoppers through their doors.”
Post-Brexit retail opportunities
The research also shows Britons to be proud of the retail sector and they want the industry protected during Brexit negotiations. Two thirds (64%) of consumers say they are proud of the service that UK retailers provide to society, and a similar proportion (65%) want the protection of UK retailers and goods prioritised during Brexit negotiations.
Overall, consumers are uncertain about the impact of Brexit on retail, but they do see areas of opportunity. Respondents are twice as likely to feel that the quality of groceries will improve post Brexit (28%), than not (14%), likely reflecting a hope that Brexit will result in more UK-based sourcing. Respondents are also more likely to believe that the availability of goods will improve (24%) compared to just 12% who think it will reduce. Similarly, shoppers are optimistic that food labelling will improve (26%) compared to 12% who think it will get worse.
There are, however, specific areas of concern with survey respondents citing worries about the availability of certain categories of goods, with exotic fruits (62%), wine (55%), luxury goods (42%) and cheese (40%) topping the list.
Londoners are most enthusiastic about new retail technologies, closely followed by those in the North West. Respondents from this region are amongst the country’s most eager for biometric payments, mobile payments, smart fitting rooms and touchscreen technologies in stores. Shoppers in Manchester are especially keen to trial virtual reality technologies in store, even more so than those in London. In addition, although appetite for drone delivery services is more muted overall, shoppers in London and Northern Ireland are most eager for the introduction of drone deliveries.