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It’s a tough time for traditional retailers – as the number of prominent casualties on the UK high street in recent weeks testifies. However, the National Retail Federation conference in New York the other week showed how retailers could fight back using a combination of design, innovation and showmanship. 

It’s very apparent that online retailers are out-innovating the conventional high street. Companies like Amazon, eBay and Apple are setting the benchmark for both price and service – with 78 per cent of customers expecting the same level of online service from older brands as new online players, according to the Autonomous Customer research about to be published by BT. The same survey also tells us that convenience is more important than price for 1 in 3 customers.

For traditional brands to survive, they need to be as, if not more, innovative using the one advantage that they have over online – their physical presence.

Blending online and offline channels is an obvious one, to start with. A simple example of this is ‘click and collect’, which is proving a big winner with customers – all the convenience of shopping online but without all that parcel paranoia that comes with home delivery. But this notion hasn’t bypassed online retailers, with Amazon establishing handy high street collection points for customers who want to pick stuff up.

Physical advantage can still be gained by remembering that retail is, to a certain extent, show business. Brands such as Build-A-Bear create fabulous experiences that can only be had in-store. Build-A-Bear encourages online customers to visit a store where, with the help of a Bear Builder, they can lovingly stuff, fluff, dress and register the birth of the creature. And when the customer leaves the physical store, their bear gets its own unique avatar in Build-A-Bear’s online world, BearVille.

Even self-service is getting in on the experience design trick – with Costa developing a vending machine that not only delivers a decent cuppa but emanates the subtle smell and sounds of a coffee shop to draw you in. A simple and intuitive HD display takes you through a seemingly infinite number of caffeine and flavour combinations, before delivering a delicious steaming cup at the end. This is a clever combination of good design and technology – and would suit the office or the high street equally, without the need for a physical store.

Games technologies are especially strong on experience design too – so it wasn’t a surprise to see Microsoft apply Kinect’s gesture-based interaction to trying on a new wardrobe. Their motion tracking system enables the customer to swish around in that red dress or match it with the ideal bag or scarf without the need to disrobe in the changing room.

However, having created the ultimate shopping experience, it is so easy to fail at the basics – with queuing at the checkout one of the main things customers would like to see eliminated in the future. Aside from technologies like Square, which turns an iPad into a swipe machine that can be used by any wandering customer service person on the shop floor, the possibility of self scan, linked to payment methods on a smart phone, is becoming a reality. I can simply scan, pay and walk out of the store with my proof of purchase on my phone and a receipt sitting in my inbox.

So for the high street to survive, it may be a case of going back to good, basic and innovative design that plays to its physical strengths as well embracing the online world!

 Posted by Dr Nicola Millard, BT Futurologist

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