There’s a future for the high street, but it’s in connected, collective working

High Street shoppers are looking for social recommendationsWith in store sales at medium-sized retailers falling 2.2% in December, as online sales grew by 31%, – driven by a record-breaking £600 million spent in the UK on Cyber Monday - the survival of the high street debate is once again high on the agenda. However, I detect among experts more optimism about its future, as technology and innovation offer potential lifelines to the bricks and mortar stores.

A healthy high street – diverse, interesting and unique – can only be guaranteed, however, if independents and smaller businesses are supported. Beyond simply calling for levies on bigger retailers, there needs to be a far greater understanding of how Big Data, connectivity and collective working plays a role in this.

Aggregation and collective working around customer personalisation and in deals or loyalty schemes could help indies to survive. But they will need to up their game to give as good a user experience as the bigger retail players.

Online collective digital stores with shared delivery, warehousing and marketing could offer opportunity to smaller businesses to understand their customers and offer a 24/7 service. Not opening late or being able to offer the convenience that larger stores can is something that indies have historically fallen down on.

The next generation retail model needs to reflect the behaviours of the next generation. This is a generation that wants to connect with brands at any time, in any place and in a way that suits them. This may be in a shop, on a mobile or on another device. This is not to say that they don’t want to visit stores but the younger generation will want to extend the experience way beyond the visit.

So, what might this vision of digitally and data-led collective working for indies look like? Well, if the retail mix is right – and complementary – local loyalty schemes and complementary and discounts could work well. The Grimsey Review, the alternative to the Portas Review published independently by the retailer leader Bill Grimsby back in September made some interesting proposals.

Drawing on Big Data technology, residents could link their local loyalty card service to their mobile phones, not just showing real-time information across the town centre on car parking spaces and booking appointments, but it could link to their social calendar, showing daily events and gatherings – even the happenings across alternative retail spaces, from community collectives and coffee mornings to skills swaps and workshops. Indies could be the drivers of the local ‘meet-ups’. At present, there’s little such social integration or real-time data feeds that link with transport systems, local authorities or other local businesses.

But, Big Data could also be integrated into the future of the high street at a more planning-based strategic level. Where customers physically spend their time has changed dramatically, and is a factor that influences ‘consumer-led’ hubs. According to the Grimsey Review, transport centres, for example, have become the latest iteration in the development of these ‘consumer-led’ locations. The report cited Manchester Airport’s 2012 retail income as growing by £5.2m to £74.6m. Destinations are different because of the location, make-up, connectivity, economic health, ethnicity, age profile – exactly the sort of understanding and wealth of strategic information that data and location services help provide.

It goes without saying that independent stores, coffee shops and leisure businesses bring a unique personality that’s desirable for larger usual high street clients – look at the success of London places like Broadway Market, Stoke Newington Church Street or Islington’s Camden Passage. It’s in everyone’s interest to keep indies going, but let’s harness the available resources we have in Big Data to drive collective working.

Nishma Robb is Chief Client and Marketing Officer at iProspect.