More than a fifth of all the shops on London’s Oxford Street were boarded up even before the news came that ASOS is taking former Arcadia brands – including Topshop and Miss Selfridge – online only.  This was another body blow to the UK’s physical retail sector that was already reeling from the departure of Debenhams, Burtons and others the week prior. These losses might feel like nails in a multi-story coffin for the high street, but while the bricks and mortar experience will undoubtedly need to change, this doesn’t signal an ending.

Rather, we need to stop our fascination with retail being environment-oriented. Instead of fixating on a physical retail or an ecommerce site, we should shift our thinking to recognise that retail is an ecosystem of complementary touchpoints that drive purchase decisions. The art is maximising the role and relevance of each. 



Chris Carter, CEO of digital commerce agency smp

As we’re acutely aware, the shift to a digital-first landscape has been accelerated by necessity and this is also reflected in evolving shopper behaviours. Our own tracker study found that 81% of consumers will stick to new online habits they picked up during the pandemic. Physical retailers can still sit within this ecosystem though. By connecting traditional in-store and digital touchpoints in a complementary way, brands can ensure they’re consistently relevant to shoppers’ needs. This enhances the consumer experience and, ultimately, drives sales. 

First, understand the value in digital commerce

While commentators most generally talk specifically about how e-commerce has grown, this is a limited read.  What is more exciting is the acceleration of digital commerce, the combination of digital marketing and e-commerce to create shoppable marketing touchpoints.

New technology developments have transformed DTC (direct-to-consumer) channels, notably social, from being mere awareness drivers to purchase ones. The livestream boom now comes complete with shoppable widgets, and platforms like Pinterest have expanded its AR beauty offering with global brands like MAC. 

While pulled shutters on the high street could have spelt doom for many brands, those that have embraced digital benefit from a breadth of shoppable moments. Convenience is a key consideration because many of us never let our smartphones out of our sight!

Greater efficiencies between discovery and purchase – often one-click – across digital touchpoints is changing how consumers of all ages approach shopping. Making more moments shoppable benefits brands too given there are fewer opportunities for competitors to cut through, a clear advantage on overcrowded shelf space in physical retail environments. 

Putting collaboration ahead of competition

This doesn’t mean brands should give up on the high street retailers, but they can reappraise how they approach those relationships. Rather than making eye-watering investments for prime spots in-store, brands should instead consider the opportunities inherent in campaign-led partnerships.

Collaborating in contextually appropriate environments offers inspiration and cuts out the usual pain-points in product searches. The John Lewis Smart Home department offered an immersive vision of what a real connected home can look like. In this ecosystem, brands were positioned side-by-side to actually complement each other, the retailer was able to show off its own furniture, lighting and textiles alongside third party smart speakers, heating and lightbulb brands. 

Physical and digital are not exclusive

While the convenience and efficiencies of digital commerce certainly offer some major advantages, traditional retail still has a key differentiator in sensory-led, tactile experiences. As yet, these cannot be replicated remotely even with the most advanced AR, VR and haptic technologies – and these are also very far from being a mass market concern.

This should be the guiding principle for those big players considering their bricks and mortar strategies for a world that’s embraced all that digital has to offer. They’d be wise to reposition the flagship stores as tech-led experiential hubs to offer consumers something unique they cannot get through the normal digital channels.

‘Sensory’ is a loaded term of course, but it applies equally to the Apple Store as it did to the make-up counters in Debenhams. In fact, it’s the more involved products that require a hands-on demonstration that are best suited to experiential hubs. Invariably consumers will seek out advice from online reviewers and similar beforehand, but it’s the first-hand ‘try before you buy’ demonstrations that will drive conversions for high-value items.  

The success of the shopping malls of the late twentieth century reminds us that humans are above all else social creatures. Although times have moved on, this still applies and transforming old-fashioned aisles into immersive experience-led playgrounds will underline the value in physical spaces for the twenty-first century. 

But there’s no denying that digital commerce will become the standard, and stores will evolve into brand showrooms that are one touchpoint of a seamless omnichannel journey. As such, retailers should ensure that the experience in each stage of a journey, be it digital or physical, is familiar and complementary. 

Traditional stock rooms can be repurposed into experience-led sales floor space and while orders can be placed at POS or via the users smart-device, they should expect the same home delivery set-up. Outside of supermarkets and convenience stores, the very concept of popping to the shops to pick up something in particular should – rightly – go the way of the dinosaur. Rather than maintaining constant stock on premise – which is both expensive and often impractical, especially as more cities bring in low emission zones, physical retail should leverage the best of ecommerce fulfilment; dispatching orders from regional distribution hubs. 

Keeping returning shoppers engaged will mean a regular rotation of products, themed in line with integrated marketing campaigns. Retailers should call on data to guide the focus and product-set for each. Much like Amazon’s 4-Star store, showroom’s can then focus on those items that consumers love, and buy. To align with digital capabilities, in-store product specifications could also be presented in the same format as ecommerce Product Detail Pages – made accessible through the customer’s mobile.

All of this is entirely achievable and highly pragmatic. We all know the high-street isn’t going back to how it looked before the pandemic. As we’ve seen, there are good reasons it shouldn’t. The only way traditional retailers can compete and remain relevant is to combine the unique attributes of a physical location with customer insight to offer something that will capture their imagination to bring back footfall and drive brand loyalty. 

As digital commerce channels seek to differentiate through new customer-centric functionality built around efficiencies of cost and experience, traditional retail needs to find its own unique selling point. The waves of administrations for household name bricks and mortar brands last year highlight that retailers can no longer afford to sit outside of digital experiences. The question is, how can they reconfigure those physical channels to create a meaningful role in tomorrow’s purchase journeys?