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what does the future hold for “affordable” retailers? – Retail Times

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With experts predicting everything from robot repair shops, bug burger bars and virtual reality travel agents, Sara Jones, partner and client services director at creative agency Free The Birds, considers the future opportunities for high street retailers

Jones: successful retailers will be the ones that listen and understand the demands of their consumers in the here and now

It’s no secret that online shopping has risen in recent years, with reports from IBM suggesting that the coronavirus pandemic accelerated this shift fivefold.  


As a result, we saw several of our favourite stores disappear from the high street, with recent data showing that the UK lost more than 17,500 chain store outlets in 2020.

Some were lost forever, while others like Topshop, will at least continue to live online, having been rescued by bigger online retailers. 

In other cases, retailers have taken the decision into their own hands, and proactively reduced their physical footprints, with the intent of strengthening their digital offerings instead. 


Taking this into account, along with experts predicting that everything from robot repair shops, bug burger bars and virtual reality travel agents could hit our high streets in the next 15 years, you’d be forgiven for believing that bricks and mortar stores are on the verge of transforming beyond recognition – but this seems a little overzealous to me, and certainly won’t be the case for everyone. 


I’m not saying that high streets won’t change at all. After all, just as retailers want to save money, landlords need to make money. In November, it was announced that the Marks & Spencer flagship store on Oxford Street – its biggest site in the UK – will be replaced with a 10-storey site which will house M&S, an office and gym space, for example, which provides some insight into how major commerce hubs might start to evolve.

Equally, many retailers are going to need to work harder to attract footfall into stores. This will mean transforming what they use their stores for or elevating the experience of visiting them. 

It seems counter intuitive that IKEA would launch a new store in the heart of Oxford Circus, for example, knowing that most people commute to the area via public transport. Few of us would be brave enough to carry much more than a lampshade on the Northern line. 

As such, we can expect the store to be used more as a showroom, but with a sprinkle of additional “sparkle” in the form of elevated shopping experiences – an example others will follow. 

But for some retailers – particularly those that pride themselves on selling affordable essentials, like pet care, garden, and DIY tools – things are unlikely to change too much, and for good reason.

Similarly to the fondness that people have for budget supermarkets like Aldi and Lidl, the fact that you can pick up good quality essentials at specific high street shops for a reasonable price point is their main point of appeal.  

For comparison – across the pond in the US, where 34 million people are below the poverty line, “dollar stores” such as Dollar General, Dollar Tree and Family Dollar make up almost half of new store openings in the country.

They sprung up across the US in response to demand from budget-conscious shoppers even as other brick and mortar chains shift their focus to e-commerce. 

Naturally, dollar stores are at the extreme end of the scale in terms of price point. But whether it’s the 2008 recession or the coronavirus pandemic – both of which caused many people to lose their jobs – shops selling goods at reasonable prices are vital for keeping highstreets thriving. 

And why are these particular retailers so good at keeping their costs so low? Because they keep things simple. Their stores, for examples, are clean, well-lit, and easy to navigate. There are no cafes, no fancy shop windows, or loyalty cards – all of which come with a cost.

They clearly recognise that there is an opportunity for them to thrive in this new world and are therefore investing in these strengths.  

As an example – Wilko is well known for selling high quality goods at low cost. At Free The Birds, we recently redesigned wilko’s own-label range, in order to better highlight product benefits and ease navigation on shelves. This was in response to direct feedback from their customers that it was difficult to find the right products on the shelves.

Wilko’s redesigned own-label range

That’s not to say that these retailers won’t also be looking to capitalise on e-commerce. The fact that wilko has also just invested £3 million into autonomous technology firm StreetDrone – an Oxford company creating driverless vehicles issuing last-mile deliveries – is a testament to this. 

But we can be sure that physical stores will form a key part of that future. That’s because, when it comes to basics at least, the case for hopping in the car to your local store – rather than fiddling around with the computer and paying unnecessary delivery costs – will endure.

Wilko rebrand highlights product benefits and helps with shelf navigation

We can only imagine where or how we’ll be picking up our dog food and our laundry detergent in the next 10 to 15 years’ time. 

But one thing we can guarantee is that the most successful retailers will be the ones that listen and understand the demands of their consumers in the here and now and make the right changes to accommodate them in their time of need. 





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