Classed as essential during lockdown, many of our independent shops remained open, becoming the only retail experience available to most of us. Data from Barclaycard, which tracks more than half of all card transactions, showed spending at local independent grocers in the UK grew by 30.5% between the last week pre-lockdown and the first week of lockdown.
But why did they prove so popular? Local stores are easier to visit than big out-of-town DIY sheds, and often no more expensive. When you factor in fuel, parking and your time, they might even be cheaper. These shops are also staffed by people who know their stuff and value their customers.
There’s a hardware shop near me, run by people who really know what they’re talking about. They’re experts, they’re willing to share those expertise to help me, and if I need three screws, they’ll sell me three, rather than making me buy 200.
It’s an infinitely more rewarding shopping experience than what I’d receive online. The question is, how do we translate this altruism and quality customer service to digital retail?
Technology as a power for good: Innovation in the charity sector
The charity sector has always benefitted from a physical space and strong presence on the high street and the trusty collection box remains a staple feature of most checkouts or tills across world. Scaled down from the life size versions that used to feature at the entrance of the many shops they still provide an important source of income for many charities.
Sadly though, the charity sector has been slow to digitally adapt in recent years and the sudden shift to ecommerce and cashless transactions has left them exposed. But, there are encouraging signs and examples of innovative non-profit brands evolving their offering, which should hopefully serve as a catalyst for the rest of the sector
Fintech charity Pennies has, among others, solved the collection box problem by creating a digital equivalent that works online and in-store. Rather than guiltily rushing past the charity collector at your local train station because you don’t have any loose change, you can add an extra few pennies or pounds to your purchase and it goes straight to the nominated charity.
It’s more effective than a collection box, because it works in store, online and across all channels. To date, Pennies has raised £24 million for charity, proof alone that technology can be used as a power for good.
Coronavirus is accelerating us towards a cashless high street, mirroring the easy purchasing habits created by digital retail. Without multichannel solutions like Pennies to replace the collection box, the charitable sector will lose millions.
Accessing vital expert advice online or via the phone is a tougher call. It’s labour intensive and expensive to have experts on call – and I’m talking about hardware store levels of expertise, not call-centre levels. Call centres have their place, but they’re not tailored to individual interactions and solving niche problems.
Combining digital and physical retail: Breathing life back into the high street
What’s more, the research phase of a purchase – filtering useful from opinionated – often takes as long as deciding what to buy, because retailers and manufacturers are often not very good at imparting information via digital channels.
Independent reviewers and experts have filled this gap with a slew of video and supporting content, but it’s still up the customer to figure out who’s trustworthy and knowledgeable. Sometimes, it’s just easier to go to a shop and ask a human you know and trust.
It would be a real loss to communities and customers if retail’s best bits were lost in the rush to digital commerce – interaction and altruism are important human qualities. Coronavirus has made us re-evaluate how we shop and the importance of small shops, at the cost of the larger stores.
Perhaps retail’s future lies between local and digital. More mixed use in town centres and combining independent shops with housing could bring much-needed life to the high street – and keep the things we love about small-scale retail.
Digital continues to accelerate but it replaces retail parks and out-of-town shopping centres rather than the high street, adopting some of the good things on the way.
Idealistic? Maybe. But it seems there’s a chance to solve problems and create a better future. If that’s idealistic, then it sounds ideal to me.
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