The reason the High Street died

In the UK the major shopping district is colloquially called ‘the high street’. Other countries may call it the CBD (central business district – but more generally this is the office and skyscraper part of a city), downtown, or simply ‘the shops’. My local town here in the UK has one named The High Street and this isn’t unusual for England as it is the most common street name. With the advent of online shopping in the early 2000’s and the rise of Amazon there was much consternation at the plight of bricks-and-mortar shops on the high street. TV programmes that aimed to remedy the flight away (notably ones featuring Mary Portas – ‘queen of shops!’) were common, there were government grants and industry worked with academia to study the issues – I know, because in my professional life I took part in one such study.

But the shoppers continued to flock to the online retailers and everyone was puzzled. Discounts, robo-shoppers (visit store to peruse, shop online cheaper), price matching and all manner of techniques were put forward. Card networks offered to analyse patterns and events were held in target towns. Yet, from my personal and anecdotal experience I’d have to point at one major reason why people are turning away from shopping in person especially at the larger out-of-town warehouses.

Rudeness.

I’ve just come back from picking up some items from one of the large chain vendors here in the UK, and my experience was stomach-turning. I struggled to the checkout with a large TV and no-one offered to help. We had a gaming console plus assorted other items and our purchases were a sizeable part of £1000 – so not insignificant. At the checkout the assistant immediately started up-selling product insurance and when I declined insisted on asking why? He also wanted to know my street address and email, and when I also refused those insisted that the purchase would not go through without them. Actually, the store already had them as I have an account in their online shopping system and had reserved the console earlier. But what shook me was the general abusive approach taken to the sale; countering my every decline, challenging my refusal to take insurance, insisting on more personal detail and so on. As we struggled to lift the items from the counter he stepped back and turned away – not even offering to hold them while I took some to the car. Perhaps it was just me, or a latent racism on their behalf – but this retailer as a whole has a ‘bad’ rating on Trustpilot with five-figure negative ratings. I felt unwanted and used.

Recently another large out-of-town shopping warehouse has gone bankrupt and when I read forums on Toys-R-Us decline many people mentioned the shambolic store layouts and disinterested assistants. If shopping is all about experience, as many retail consultants believe, then it is important that shoppers feel great about what happens to them, not abused. I’ve spent long enough in the cut and thrust world of business and even time in retail as a IT consultant, so I understand the pressures and analytics which drive certain behaviours. Scanning time for checkout operators, forced meet-and-greet, up-sell and cross-sell all sound good on powerpoint but in reality shoppers are looking to feel good and have an enjoyable experience, not just acquire goods out of necessity.

I’d have to identify rudeness as a major reason why the in-store experience puts off many shoppers in England, especially in the larger chain stores. Contrast this to a recent bookstore – surely an endangered breed if ever there was! – and the utterly other experience of an assistant looking people in the eye, asking how they were and did they enjoy that type of genre, wishing them well with their purchases and offering to go the extra mile and lookup stock if needed. You felt warm and appreciated and even though I seldom purchase physical books now, I have repeatedly gone to that store simply to browse. I felt good, I felt human, I felt wanted.

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