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The rise of the ‘digital high street’: 5 ways European businesses can improve their digital presence

Transforming operations to an online business model is challenging, but technology has paved the way for a much more seamless transition in building a digital presence online.

Traditional high streets are on the decline, and have been since before the Covid-19 pandemic emerged to accelerate the process. The rise of online shopping, and high-profile acquisitions by leading retailers that solely operate online have underlined the trend.

The recent deals conducted by ASOS in purchasing high street brands like Topshop and Miss Selfridge from the Arcadia group, and the acquisition of Debenhams by online brand Boohoo have shown that in the battle for brick and mortar shopping, it’s the digital retailers that hold all the cards.

The Covid-19 pandemic led to lockdowns that sped up the loss of high street stores, leading to fewer reasons for shoppers to leave their homes and take to the streets when greater choice exists online. There may be as much as 40 percent excess retail space across the country, according to UK estate agent Savills.

As BBC data shows, the first half of 2020 alone saw almost twice as many store closures across the UK, with some 6,001 shops closing their doors for the last time.

Statista data shows that this trend isn’t just limited to UK high streets, with store closures in the US forecast to more than double in 2020 compared to the rates of the previous year.

These dwindling high streets are likely to be upsetting for a range of individuals and businesses with an interest in brick and mortar shopping. However, while Covid-19 has accelerated the closure of physical stores, it’s also provided many companies with an insight into what digital transformation can do for their business model.

Shifting operations to a more online business model can be tricky, but technology has paved the way for a much more seamless transition in building a digital presence online. With this in mind, let’s take a look at five ways in which businesses can boost their digital presence and emulate their high street stores in a more virtual environment:

1. Recreate product discovery online.

Browsing is one of the best parts of high street shopping. Customers can wander aisles, get to grips with items and stay on the lookout for a product that piques their interest. This form of shopping can also lead to impulse purchases, a form of shopping that 78 per of British consumers confirm they’ve indulged in.

Some brick-and-mortar businesses may be concerned about replicating such stats should they take the plunge and go online, but they may not need to worry themselves too much — 54 percent of impulse buys take place online already. This means that brands still have the potential to encourage impulse buying provided they create the right online environment to support it.

Be sure to facilitate product discovery and window shopping for your prospective customers by promoting items that are most likely to appeal to them. For instance, if your visitor has been browsing desktop chairs, show them similar items like other portable seating, or complementary items, like computer desks and drawers.

Keep your systems updated in real-time as this helps customers instantly see what products are close to, or already are, going out of stock. While this is largely an informative feature, it also offers social proof and a sense of urgency that many high street shoppers and stores will be familiar with. If you see that a specific item is flying off of store shelves, you’re more likely to make a purchase now rather than come back later.

On your website, use technology that’s capable of suggesting related items for customers so that they can find effective alternatives and check out what other customers have bought.

Even after you’ve successfully leveraged an order, be sure to continue facilitating product discovery by offering free samples of other products with the items you deliver. Once again, this is a great way of replicating free sample stalls that high street businesses set up to promote specific products. If you’re a fragrance shop, for example, you could include a small sample of a new scent you’ve developed.

2. Try before you buy.

Customers have always loved the perks of trying on new products before deciding to buy them. From fitting rooms to free samples of cosmetics, test drives and house viewings, try before you buy is a key sales strategy.

While it’s certainly difficult to recreate fitting rooms in the world of online shopping, augmented reality technology is developing into an effective way of facilitating immersive “try on” experiences in retail.

By utilising augmented reality, customers can model and try on clothes, makeup, or place furniture in their homes – all without having to physically have the products to hand. AR enables businesses to allow users to try out items without the need for a huge physical inventory.

Instances of AR in retail have begun to expand as more companies are beginning to recognise the potential of reality technology in the shopping process. Notably, Facebook and other social media platforms have begun to adopt AR applications which, with the help of a smartphone camera, enabled users to try on items like sunglasses or makeup. Other platforms like IKEA Place have pioneered providing the ability to virtually position furniture and other household items in the home to see if they fit the surroundings.

One key area of retail that’s increasingly turning to AR in a bid to embrace digital transformation is the world of cosmetics. L’Oreal, Sephora and Perfect Corp are a few big-name brands that have adopted technology to enable users to virtually try out their products, and the list is expanding and branching into new areas of retail at a rapid pace.

Fitting rooms are a key part of the high street experience and augmented reality has the ability to excel in establishing virtual fitting rooms to create a more immersive purchasing experience for customers.

Augmented reality changing rooms have the potential to become far more commonplace over the coming years. Tech giants like Facebook, Apple and Niantic are rapidly developing new smart glasses which will be ready for release over the next two years — some of the products will have AR capabilities that will look and feel more natural for virtual try-ons to take place.

With the global eyewear market set to reach a value of $210.8 billion U.S. dollars by 2025, it’s likely that the future of augmented reality will be based around wearables, making the replication of virtual try ons much more accessible.

3. Maintaining levels of personalised service.

According to iAdvize metrics, eight out of 10 customers value personalised shopping experiences more than simple and easy transactions. Adding a personal touch to a business was relatively simple for high street stores, with employees capable of offering instant face-to-face customer service.

“We want for every customer that comes in contact with us, whether that would be in the store, over the phone or via live chat, to go away feeling great about themselves,” explains Laura Franklin, customer service manager at Bravissimo. “This is fairly easy to do in-store and over the phone. Online, it’s quite difficult — your website has to be really functional and represent what your brand is all about, especially to customers who haven’t had an in-store experience.”

The development of chatbots and live chat features have been great for businesses aiming to bring a personal experience akin to that of brick and mortar shopping. Live chat solutions help customers engage with online consultants, ask questions and get detailed answers rapidly. Although this method doesn’t uphold face to face connections between employees and customers, it enables agents to maintain a more personable connection with their customers.

When adopting an online business model, high street brands need to make sure that they uphold their customer service values. If your brand prides itself on tailor suited customer experiences, online engagement through live chat and intuitive chatbots can recreate valuable engagements that would otherwise be lost online.

4. Social proof your business.

Both online retailers and high street stores understand the value of social proofs, although these tend to be measured in different ways. Where local high street stores gain their social proofs through word of mouth and busy brick and mortar stores, online social proofs typically emanate from far-reaching review platforms.

Whether it’s on the high street or online, word of mouth has always been one of the most effective ways of attracting new customers. As many as 82 percent of consumers typically read reviews online for a local business — so transitioning into a digital environment should carry the same considerations.

Adding social proofs to your website helps to generate a word of mouth setup where users can see the thoughts of fellow shoppers before they decide to carry out a purchase. Be sure to feature positive reviews on the pages of your website to ensure that these social proofs are influential at the right time.

It’s also worth encouraging customers to leave reviews of your products on platforms like Google and Facebook to extend your reach further. On the high street, consumers can rely on the advice of their friends and family as to what shops to visit, and online it’s a similar story — with consumers typically reading an average of 10 online reviews before deciding whether they trust a new online business.

5. Effectively engage with your audience online.

Another challenge that businesses face when transitioning from a brick and mortar store to online is the loss of a brand’s personality. On the high street, businesses can showcase their personality in unmissable advertising and the recruitment of staff that fits the brand’s ethos.

Online, this can be replicated on social media platforms, however, it’s not simply enough to post content and then log off for a few hours — successful brands build connections and actively engage with customers. By talking directly to customers on social media, you can replicate the types of conversations that can be had between employees and customers in high street stores, helping to foster trustworthy relationships in the meantime.

There are many ways in which you can engage with customers online, from commenting on your posts to participating in conversations about the brand online, to sharing user-generated images and content and quickly addressing criticism on social networks.

Be sure to have a dedicated team or account holder that spans accounts to act as an immediate point of contact for customers. These social teams or account holders can convey the personality of your business on a global scale, helping to attract the right audience and earn their trust.

Although the high street as we know it may be set to change forever in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and its ramifications for remote work and eCommerce, digital transformation opportunities offer businesses the chance to adapt to this new consumer landscape and leverage more online sales to better support the challenges ahead for offline sales.
by Dmytro Spilka
source: Entrepreneur