Saving the high street one website at a time

Written by Jamie Freeman

The British Retail Consortium have just published a report 'based on detailed research and modelling across the industry' which says there could be almost a million fewer jobs in the retail sector in the next ten years.

It goes on to say that small businesses could be disproportionally affected by the changes within the sector. How come it's always the little guy who gets it in the neck first? Unfortunately, the costs associated with running retail businesses have grown massively in the lest ten years, while price competition has driven income down. It's looking like something of a lose/lose situation for independent retailers these days.

Obviously one of the biggest influences in all this gloom is the Internet. With Amazon continuing it's move to be the Everything Shop and the promise (or threat, depending on your point of view) of drones delivering your morning coffee just around the corner, small retailers are finding it ever harder to stay afloat, let alone compete. Those new high street stores claiming successes are openly calling themselves mere shop-windows for their online stores, with no real expectation of generating significant sales in-store.

So what's an independent retailer to do?

Firstly, I should declare a couple of interests. I am the director of an e-commerce web development agency, but I'm also co-founder of a retail music business whose whole ethos is based around the physical space it operates from. So I'm more than just a little interested in the flourishing of such businesses, and in how the Internet can be a vital tool rather than a threat.

Embrace it

Let's be honest, unless you're running the kind of shop which has guaranteed footfall (like a convenience store) then you need to embrace the digital world. Accept that fact and this whole thing will go much easier! Those shops who choose to simply have a 'look book' or (heaven help us) an 'online brochure', will probably be the first to go. Those who embrace the change, and use it to their advantage, might just be in with a chance of thriving in the new economy.

The toe in the water approach simply doesn't work with e-commerce. You have to do it properly. You have to commit. That doesn't mean you have to spend a fortune these days, but there are some things you do need to bear in mind.

Why websites fail

I've heard this so often from people: "We tried being online but we didn't sell anything and it just wasn't worth it." When I dig a little deeper the reasons become clearer. Usually it's down to a few related factors, and they largely have technology at the root cause.

The stores simply don't have time to enter their sometimes large inventories onto their website, usually for technical or staffing reasons - the system is clunky or they don't have the manpower. So they end up with just a small selection. This means potential customers don't get a broad enough choice, and choice is the number one thing shoppers require. The site also suffers because rather than having thousands of pages with products for Google to get its teeth into, they might just have a very few, with the optimistic shopkeeper assuming people will phone or the shop to see more of the range.

(Spoiler alert: they won't.)

When the occasional customer does buy something online they often find it's out of stock, because the website isn't kept up to date manually, so when something sells in the store the stock on the website isn't changed. The shop didn't get an integrated system, but because the website is seen as secondary nor do they spend the time editing stock numbers with every sale in the shop… It's a vicious circle which can rapidly spiral out of control.

The result is that the website becomes a burden for the store, a chore to maintain, leading the retailer to assume - incorrectly - that investing online is a waste of money.

One solution

Customers crave choice and are far more likely to buy if they see a decent range of options open to them. Putting only the 'most important' items online arguably does more harm than good; not only are people unlikely to buy, they are unlikely to ever visit your bricks and mortar store as they think you won't have enough of a selection.

Therefore it's vital that your entire inventory is on the website (with a few exceptions) and the best way to achieve this is for your EPOS and website to be completely integrated. In fact I'd go one further and say they shouldn't be 'integrated', they should be one single system.

If you have EPOS that's not connected to your website the situation is even worse; who has the time to enter things twice?

If you're still using an old electronic till in the shop, how on earth are you keeping track of stock? How much time are you spending generating reports or creating purchase orders?

Imagine our scenario, where you have a single system that runs your shop and a shiny new website: when you bring goods in they are automatically available on your website as well as in-store. So your visitors will now see the entire range, rather than the small selection that your limited staff have been able to get uploaded. They have choice, so they are encouraged to buy. They tell their friends, they come back, you and your staff become motivated to keep the site updated… the circle is now virtuous rather than vicious.

Your cheapest ever shop expansion

Anyone who has carried out even the most basic shop fit will know just how expensive that can be. Once you add in rent, business rates, light, heat and so on, you can quickly see why I tell people a good e-commerce website is the cheapest shop expansion they will ever get. So for those stores who just feel like they need a little bit more reach to succeed, going online is really a no-brainer.

Computers have been promising a labour-free world since the sci-fi of the '50's. At Message we don't think that means independent retailers need to be among those predicted 900,000 job losses. We believe that if you embrace the web and commit to it being a key part of your business, then you can stay fit enough to survive and maybe even thrive.

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