Imagine walking down the high street of an average city in the UK today, compared to 25 years ago. What’s changed? Well – for starters, some of the most well-loved super brands like Woolworths, Blockbuster and Comet are no longer part of the inner city landscape. Instead we see trendy specialist retailers, coffee shops, artisan bakeries, pop-up fashion outlets, health clubs and beauty salons.
But are these dramatic changes in commerce actually driven by technology, or is it just down to an overall shift in consumer preference?
Survival of the fittest
Some of the shake-ups seen in the world of commerce are of course directly linked to the advances in technology, where the less successful businesses were those that lagged behind on the innovation curve.
The old-fashioned, stale department stores found themselves being pushed out of the marketplace through the onslaught of low-cost, fast-delivery e-commerce platforms, while shops that once relied on local newspaper adverts discovered how adopting an online presence could multiply their sales revenue.
The ever-present connectivity
Still, the disruption of technology in commerce runs much deeper than the clash of e-retail vs brick-and-mortar trading.
The use of technology has quietly permeated every part of our lives for the last couple of decades. We have learnt to not make large purchases on impulse, without first browsing the web for price comparisons. We no longer make dinner reservations using a phone number in the Yellow Pages, but instead book a table online – after checking reviews and ratings, of course.
And when was the last time you actually walked into a print shop to get your holiday snaps developed, instead of sharing them on social media?
The internet is such an integral part of the modern way of life in the Western world, that we don’t even question its presence anymore. It’s affected our lifestyle and our pace of living to the point where we expect everything to be immediately accessible. This is – of course – also inevitably reflected in how we choose to shop.
Survivors become thrivers
For the high street retailer of 25 years ago, the shift from ‘cash only’ to accepting plastic cards would have been a major disruption – but one which soon paid off once it was adopted. Similarly, ten or so years later, it was online payments that would become not only the major challenge but the key to survival for many brands. Today, the main success factors are things like user experience, social media engagement, and on-demand delivery. Secure and fast online payments have become a commodity service.
The retailers that have successfully incorporated innovation into their strategy in the past 25 years are now in a much stronger position than those who have been reluctant to change.
Technology has become the commercial battleground, and the winners are those who stay one step ahead of the customer’s expectations.
Be more than what’s expected
One of the biggest ongoing shifts in the commerce landscape is how retail is no longer just about retail. Shopping isn’t just about finding the perfect item, it’s about the experience. Whether it’s online or in-store, customers want to be wowed. Personalisation, engaging video content, music streaming or interactive 3D models; technology now needs to go the extra mile to support the overall user experience.
Coffee shop chains Costa and Starbucks are powerful examples of adapting to the fundamental needs of the modern customer. Recognising the increased number of solo clients with laptops, tablets and phones, using the coffee shop as a temporary office between meetings, many started providing secure wifi connections, power sockets and USB charging points. This in turn is now upping the general expectation on what a modern coffee shop should provide.
The future of e-commerce
But what about the real-world experience? Aren’t people craving a return to face-to-face human connections and traditional shopping, as an alternative to the technological frenzy? Well – that is definitely a trend, and one to watch. Every revolution comes with a certain level of resistance. However, technology still underpins successful trading by supporting stock availability, predicting demand, improving communications and much more.
Whatever the industry you operate in, consumer expectations are shifting permanently. Every brick-and-mortar merchant needs to stay aware of what their customers want, in order to compete. It’s not necessarily a case of conforming to the mainstream, but rather considering how to harness technology in a way that makes sense for your business vision, your ethos and your customers.
As shopping behaviour continues to evolve, so does the technology that enables it. And although we may not be able to predict the next major trend just yet, we can bank on the fact that the British high street will look very different in another 25 years’ time.
Nick Thompson is managing director of DCSL Software