An interesting debate took place on the BBC radio program “You And Yours” the other week. The discussion was about the future of the High Street (Main Street in American parlance). This is not a new subject but it is an important one, especially for those of us interested in customer experiences. For a number of years traditional shopping centres have seen more and more premises boarded up. Indeed, it can be more difficult nowadays to find a fishmonger on the High Street than a nail and beauty shop or an outlet for a charity. Supermarkets and out of town shopping malls have contributed to the problem.
The pandemic hasn’t helped. Many of our High Street outlets were forced to close during the lockdown and we turned in droves to buying online. In the UK internet sales accounted for 2.8% in 2006. By February 2020 they were nudging 20%. In April of this year they shot up to 30% because of the pandemic. They are not likely to stay at this level as the pandemic is tamed but they will undoubtedly hang around at a fifth to a quarter of all sales with an upward trend.
Callers to the You And Yours program showed how the population is divided in its attitude to High Street versus online sales. Some people worried about the unsightly nature of boarded up shops and the inability to wander into shops and have a chat. And then, just as passionately others phoned in to say how the High Street experience was overblown and they could see why people preferred to shop online rather than be frustrated by shopkeepers who resented the public or opened and closed at times to suit themselves.
The word "experience" is crucial in this debate. Experiences are things that we suffer or enjoy during an event. In its fight back, the High Street must find ways of creating experiences that cannot be achieved online. Attractive venues, enthusiastic social interactions, novel events, flexible opening hours, will all add value. At the same time online sales will offer experiences which cannot be achieved in the High Street. Easy to use websites, quick delivery, 24 hour shopping will continue to have strong appeal. There is no reason why the High Street outlets can't supplement with a complementary online offer.
For all of us who are involved in providing customer experience, the High Street/online debate is fascinating. We must watch the winners and losers on both sides and learn from them. And we should never forget that the key to it all is delivering the experience that people want.