OPINION26 May 2021

The future of the high street

Covid-19 Opinion Retail Trends

As lockdown lifts and shops reopen, will the public return to old ways of shopping? Yusdi Santoso argues physical stores have a new role to play in the economy.

Crowd of people wearing anti-viral masks

Covid-19 has changed the role of the high street as we know it. Through our long confinement at home, we realise that many store visits are dispensable — people can get by without them. But as lockdown restrictions are slowly lifted, it is clear that we still yearn for the physical and sensory engagement of shopping in the high street.

One thing for sure is that high street shopping will not be the same as before. The world post-pandemic will work differently — what will those future interactions look like?

Customers and employees are likely to be on high alert because of the uncertainty the pandemic brought about, so as well as being agile and planning ahead, brands need to think about what people actually want. Right now, there is a big difference between what we think is needed, and what the customers actually need. It’s risky to make assumptions about how customers want to operate as they return to bricks and mortar stores.

With experience design – which we define as a repeatable, human-centric approach for creating emotionally resonant interactions – businesses can craft consistently excellent interactions to share and spread across the entire organisation.

In the short term, businesses need to find a way to stay close to customers (and employees) and stay agile, and the best way to do this is by listening to their feedback and asking the right questions. The businesses that put the most focus on ‘experience improvement’ will bounce back the quickest.

This is one of the very few times where companies have the opportunity to experiment with different methods. They can step out of their usual regime and try bottom-up innovation. They can give local teams the power of the voice of the customer and the employee, and let them use methods relevant for their specific team, store and location.

As well as considering short-term to medium-term changes on a local level, we must also consider the long-term impacts. What does it mean now to have a ‘store’ on the high street? It can mean more than just a single standing building that holds a selection of a company’s products for customers to try and buy.

It’s true that there is still a strong desire to try on and browse — seeing, feeling and touching physical products is an important part of the buying experience, and no doubt people have missed it in the last few months. However, we will see a diversification of that buying experience to make it more appropriate for modern times.

We will likely see a shift to experience centres, either temporary or permanent, where customers can visit, be inspired and learn about the brand in a physical setting. This experience centre is less important for direct sales, but instead a platform for marketing.

Strategic, flagship stores like Ikea’s small format city stores are a great example of this. The Ikea stores we’re familiar with are large warehouse buildings with thousands of products arranged into rooms and categories. This huge design isn’t appropriate for city locations, and so the brand created miniature versions, so customers could still get a taste of the ‘Ikea experience’.

Within a small format city store like this, customers can use the app to add items to their basket and have them delivered without having to pick them up and drive them home.

This truly is the definition of omnichannel, where the physical and the digital are combined to bring about a quick, convenient and exciting brand experience. It caters directly to the customer’s needs, and that’s exactly what brands should be striving for to stay competitive.

So, as we embrace the digital experience, we aren’t saying goodbye to the high street. Instead, we are welcoming the evolution of bricks and mortar, and we will see it shift to meet the ever-changing needs of customers — so they can purchase at their convenience while also getting the perks of the try-before-you-buy experience.

Yusdi Santoso is head of customer experience management, Europe, Middle East and Africa at Qualtrics.