What is the future of the high street and what does it mean for agencies?

By Sue Benson, MD, The Behaviours Agency

I feel like I’ve been writing about this topic and its ugly sister, the death of the high street, for most of my 20 years in retail marketing. And every year it gets slightly more depressing, chipping away at little moments of optimism I experience.

Clearly, in the middle of lockdown high streets are barren places. But I’m hopeful that at some point soon they’ll be open again. And it’s this post-COVID world that I’ll be exploring here.

There’s been an enormous shift to online but global predictions range from only 20-30%* of our spend taking place online in the next decade. That means that 70-80% of our spend will still take place in ‘high street’ stores.

The significant point though is that for many retailers, both of those channels are of equal importance as changing consumer behaviour blends the buying experience and demands a seamless ecosystem.

So here I am again, gurning my loins to write content to extol the virtues of the fabulousness of physical shopping, when all around me cry digital traitor!

Why shopping is still important to us?

Now don’t get me wrong, I also love all things digital (apart from the pile of cardboard growing in my garage), but the things that motivate all of us to shop in person can’t all be easily satisfied by a digital experience.

To explore these motivations, I have used one of the dimensions of our Behaviour Change Model. It explores status, belonging, self-actualisation and security. We use it with other broader behavioural science principles to decode the buying journey, but here it’s useful to explore what’s going on and why the future of the high street is vitally important to us.

Belonging – thankfully one of the positives of COVID-19 has been our enhanced sense of community. Coupled with local shopping, which started as a necessity and is now a joyful experience, shopping in this context gives us a sense of giving back and a sense of belonging and association to where we live.

From a retail perspective, niche brands like Lululemon and Rapha have successfully tapped into that sense of belonging, uniting communities with shared passions. And we couldn’t talk about belonging without thinking about tribal behaviour and the hoards of teenagers who hang out on our high streets.

Self-actualisation – We seem to have forgotten that for many of us shopping is a pleasure; even a pastime. Whiling away many happy hours mooching around shops with friends and family. Seeking out outfits to get drunk in that night, finding the perfectly soft scandi cushion; all create a sense of achievement even if our feet are killing us.

Status – Where we shop and the brands we buy from all feed our sense of status.

There’s the army of Primark shoppers queuing around the block or the status hunters who leave Selfridges clutching that yellow bag.

Security –  60,000 five star reviews are great. But they aren’t enough for those times when we just need to talk to someone face to face, so they can help us make the right decision. Stores and store colleagues can provide solidity, security and authority.

Yes, we can still get some of those things online but that innate human behaviour of interaction just doesn’t get fulfilled online.

We’re social creatures; that hasn’t changed in many thousands of years and it’s not going to now either.

There is a strong and vibrant future for high streets stores – but not as we know it.

Ignoring momentarily that there are probably bigger factors at play that will impact the future of the high street and town centres as a whole, retailers themselves have a responsibility to reinvent high street retailing and we believe that these four dimensions could enable them to remodel their success.

Curation – Vast quantities of stock need to be a thing of the past. Retailers need to think how they can show (in every sense of the word) their products and services, in the same way that a museum curator would do – just without the dust (sorry I’m a heathen when it comes to art and history).

Community – Stores will have to add value to the community and create communities for their consumers.

Convergence – We need to stop thinking offline and online and start to think about a single ecosystem of channels that move consumers down the buying journey.

Colleagues – Let’s reinvent the humble store colleague. They should be experts in their field, outstanding service providers and treated with greater respect. A colleague and customer interaction framework should be part of this concept.

How agencies can support retailers

There’s never been a more exciting time to work in retail and, in my view, agencies will win by being able to:

  1. Advise clients across the entire consumer journey. The resurgence of full-service thinking.
  2. Build fully immersive experiences in physical and digital spaces.
  3. Build digital expansive and digital proof brands that enable colleagues to flourish.
  4. Have innovation, exploration and true test and learn as part of their core values.
  5. Permanently think ‘shoppable’ moments in the platforms we know now and the platforms that we haven’t even thought of yet.

Finally stop talking about death and start talking about rebirth.

With my behavioural science hat on, perhaps we just need to reframe the problem. The more we talk about death, the more that it’ll become a self-fulfilling prophecy.*

We have an opportunity as Manchester agencies to do something truly remarkable by helping the brands and retailers we support to restructure retail – just not as we knew it.

Those requirements for innovation, community spirit and bloody hard work is evident in droves on this creative high street.

So, folks of Manchester, do we need a new name for retail as part of our reframing exercise? Over to you.




About The Behaviours Agency

We are a creative agency that uses behavioural science to make marketing more effective. We have developed our own unique behavioural model that allows us to create compelling brands, experiences and campaigns that lead to real commercial value for our clients. If you want to hear more about what we do and our behaviour-led approach then please get in touch here.