Technology means there’s change aplenty in store for the High Street

by Scott Douglas

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

Primark-at-Night in EdinburghA version of this post first appeared in the Daily Record’s Edinburgh Now supplement.

Why do  we feel such a need to pronounce something ‘dead’ when it is actually undergoing a period of profound change?

I’ve been told the desktop PC is dead, that TV as we know it is about to fall of its perch and that newspapers and magazines are living on borrowed time. In fact, all are alive and kicking and wrestling to adapt and reshape for the future.

The ‘death of’ reports which are most exaggerated are those claiming High Street shops are doomed. Are there people who believe shops as we know them will soon cease to exist? Really?

Granted, the retail outlook remains pretty bleak after a prolonged recession. The Centre for Retail Research says there were 24,855 shops in Scotland in 2012 and predicts the numbers will drop by 23% to just 19,050 by 2018.

A major part of that is down to the rise of the web, which has changed shopping forever with the ability to browse and buy online. But this isn’t new. It was the mid 90s when Amazon sprung up online and it’s taken 19 years for it to become the world’s biggest online retailer.

Yet for all the bells and whistles which have been made available online, the shopping experience in bricks and mortar shops has barely changed.

Here in Edinburgh over that same 20 year period, footfall on Princes Street, has steadily fallen, so the city council is now looking at relaxing the ‘retail only’ planning rules for the street.

It seems that shopping alone isn’t enough to draw people in. So, It’s hoped that offering up continental style pavement cafes and restaurants along Prince Street will change its fortunes.

Tremendous Experience

If this summer’s experiment with pavement cafes the length of George Street was a taster, then bring it on. The transformation was amazing. The atmosphere outstanding. The experience tremendous. Most importantly of all? The sun shone consistently through July and August.

I don’t want to rain on the ‘continental experience’ parade, because in Scotland  the lousy weather will take care of that. Which means spicing up the retail mix with more coffee stops and al fresco eateries is only ever going to be part of the solution.

Providing more of the outlets that shoppers want is another part – not easy in a city centre where many retailers are forced into units smaller than ideal, while the big boys are in warren-like buildings configured for a different era.

Remember the buzz when upmarket department store Harvey Nicks opened or when budget fashion chain Primark arrived on Princes Street? Both were purpose-built from the ground up.Princes-Street-Construction

A recent high-profile addition on Princes Street is the Dr Marten’s shop – welcome, but probably not enough to give the retail sector the bovver-booted kickstart it needs.

The next likely opening on Princes Street to really get shoppers drooling is the Apple Store, rumoured for  the former Burger King site at the East End.

Apple Stores earn more per square foot of retail space than just about any other shopping outlets on the planet – 16 times the US average. Like all Apple products, design and ease of use is central to the success of the stores.

Quality of Service

Service is also crucial and Apple replaces bored/rude/inexperienced staff with passionate, customer-service ‘Geniuses’. But it’s likely to be in technology where others get a retailing lesson from Apple.

A free iPhone app lets shoppers in Apple Stores scan any item on a shelf, pay for it via phone and walk out with it, without speaking to a member of staff or visiting a till.

Virtually everyone now has a smartphone in their pocket and the technology promises so much to enhance the shopping experience – yet shops have been slow to embrace this.

Where are the in-store discounts for walk-in customers? The easy pay options using a phone? The ability to scan products and instantly check availability? Or to hold a phone over a product and see a video or interactive display? Even the ability to use a phone as an alternative to a loyalty card hasn’t been properly explored.

All of these changes – and plenty more we haven’t even thought of yet – are coming and will reinvent the shopping experience.

If Edinburgh city centre isn’t a thriving shopping centre a decade from now, then I’ll have to go online to buy a nice new hat. Just so that I can eat it.

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