Mary Portas’ review of the future of our High Streets: Ignores ecommerce and service-based business

The face of retail in the UK has changed almost beyond recognition over the past decade and unfortunately it is clear there can be no one-size-fits-all solution to fixing the growing High Street void. However, looking beyond the PR hype that inevitably surrounds a ‘celebrity’ figurehead, today’s recommendations do at least go some way to addressing some of the acute challenges faced by the high street. At the very least they will hopefully provide useful in raising awareness and give some food for thought at a local-level – which is largely where this issue will need to be addressed.

But where is the discussion around the benefits of a well thought through online-offline strategy? Where is the nod to the potential value of supporting the many service-based organisations that are at the heart of our towns?

Looking to the future, rather than seeing online retail as a threat to the future of the High Street, we need to start viewing it as key to re-energising our town centres. The re-birth of a vibrant UK retail sector is going to rely on getting the offline-online mix right; using online channels to incentivise shoppers back into stores. ‘Click and collect’ schemes are proving a success for early adopters, however I believe it is actually service-based small and mid-sized businesses that are best positioned to lead the way here.

Service-based SMEs rely on building and maintaining customer relationships at a local level and for them the online world opens up a whole new set of opportunities for engaging and building custom. Whilst service business may traditionally have been slower to embrace the prospect of online channels, the technology is now easily accessible to ensure they can turn online engagement into offline custom. If businesses can offer customers the ability to avoid a queue, pick up pre-purchased item, or to receive a more personal shopping experience, gives convenience for the shopper, and the chance to then ‘upsell’ additional items in store for the retailer. This method of getting people back on to the high street with a planned purpose or appointment, may replace the casual shopping experience of the past, but still works effectively to bring people back into the High Street.

As we begin to see more and more service-based businesses take this hybrid approach to customer acquisition and retention, I fully expect to see them at the forefront of the regeneration of our High Streets.

And here’s to hoping this report is just the start from Portas, with more to come exploring how online channels can help bolster bricks-and-mortar businesses…