Mixing bricks with clicks

In a winter of economic discontent, growing online sales combined with high street trading is a brighter outlook, writes James Wallman

It doesn’t matter whether I’m presenting on stage or talking to a few people in a boardroom, when I say this phrase every person in the room cringes. But it’s memorable and, for any retailer with a presence in the real world, it matters. So I say it anyway: “Mix bricks with clicks.”

This is the only way to save your store from a winter of discontented consumers who are forcing businessman Sir Philip Green to close 260 stores. And elsewhere, according to accountancy firm BDO, another 26,000 shops will shut by 2015.

Besides the bleak economic outlook, the iciest wind on the high street right now is coming from the internet. Because, while conditions are bleak and windy in real-world retail, the weather’s fine online.

As more of us spend more time online – saying what we had for dinner on Facebook and catapulting Angry Birds at unlucky pigs – so it’s changing our habits. For starters, we’re shopping more there: online sales in the UK now account for 12 per cent of sales and went up 14 per cent to a value of £50 billion last year, according to recent research by online comparison service Kelkoo.

While conditions are bleak in real-world retail, the weather’s fine online

But, as well as changing our habits, spending time online has changed our expectations. We expect more options and more information. We want the best deal, to hear what others think and we want a personalised experience. In other words, the sort of one-click, peer-reviewed, personalised shopping available online with outfits like Amazon.

Talking of Amazon, they’re making it even harder for real-world retailers, with their new Price Check app that encourages a practice with a nasty name – scan and scram. Here’s how it works: you go into a store, you scan the barcode and work out you can buy the item cheaper elsewhere.

This problem is only going to get worse for UK stores, since eight out of ten smartphone owners in the United States have already scanned and scrammed, according to tech review site Retrevo.com. Furthermore, nine out of ten retailers conceded that their customers could get a better deal somewhere else, according to research by Econsultancy.

So if that’s how people are going to treat your store, why not give up the high street and just go online? Because nothing so far can replace the feel of real-world shopping and most purchases will still be made there for some time. The key is to take the best of online and offline, and merge the two.

Currently my favourite way to do this – and this has been a hot topic at the last two World Retail Congresses – is seamless multichannel retail. It’s the seamless bit that’s hard as it’s easy to lose track of people as they shift from researching online to purchasing offline.

The way to bridge that gap is mobile and a US brand called Shopkick is leading the way. It connects online and offline by rewarding people with Kickbucks – discounts redeemable against purchase – at each step closer to buying in the real world. They get rewarded for visiting the store, for example, and for checking out specific products.

Mobile will also become the way for stores to personalise the experience. Think how much more helpful tomorrow’s shopkeepers will be and how much more they’ll be able to sell when they are armed with as much personal data you care to share via your mobile.

Real-world retail isn’t dead; it just needs an engaging, data-driven, interactive shot in the arm. To thrive in the 2010s, the key is to bridge the gap between the online and offline worlds – to mix bricks with clicks.