For many, the death of the British high street has long been a question of when, not if. And with the pandemic causing the proportion of total UK retail sales that take place online to almost double, many thought that Covid-19 would prove to be the final nail in the coffin.
Yet, over the course of the pandemic, we have seen that shoppers are still keen to hit the shops and footfall returned with gusto when lockdown restrictions eased. So, while the Omicron variant understandably impacted trading for the festive period, there are positive signs that footfall will return alongside consumer confidence.
Looking back, the high street drove significant sales growth during November, despite all the noise around Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Alongside this, Primark – the UK’s second biggest clothing retailer – reinforced its faith in bricks-and-mortar as it kicked off plans to open 130 stores around the world over the next five years. Ecommerce giant Amazon also began to open physical locations worldwide.
The fact is that physical stores can create and maintain a brand’s image in a way that an online presence cannot. Shops that provide a true physical experience effectively create a focal point where customers can engage with the brand and gain inspiration, driving loyalty. Such an experience cannot be easily replicated online and can help operators set themselves apart in a highly saturated market.
The shop floor is evolving beyond simply being a place to shift volume sales, and this is providing brands with the chance to truly develop their offering and stand out from the pack.
Naturally, as we live through the social media generation, retail spaces need to be aesthetically pleasing and become almost ‘Instagrammable’, but as technology such as virtual reality and augmented reality become increasingly prevalent in day-to-day life, the possibilities to create unique customer experiences will become endless.
So, although Covid-19 restrictions may continue to be re-introduced as the UK learns to live with the virus long term, it is clear that physical store locations will continue to play a key role in driving a positive brand experience – and can still offer a huge return on investment for retailers and commercial landlords.
Heiner Evanschitzky is professor and chair of marketing at Alliance Manchester Business School