Retail is in dire straits. Marketing will decide who will sink and swim
A view from Phil Pawsey

Retail is in dire straits. Marketing will decide who will sink and swim

A major new report paints a troubling picture for retailers in the UK, but the evidence shows us businesses that keep their brands relevant and engaging are continuing to thrive, Blackdog's executive creative director writes.

It may be more battered and bloodied than at any point in its long and illustrious history, but the UK high street still isn’t dead.

The Grimsey Review 2 - a fact-based report on the state of the high street, written by businessman Bill Grimsey and released last week - made for a bleak read, with an unprecedented number of virtual and physical retailers closing their doors. More gloom comes in the prediction that 40,000 high street jobs face the chop in the next six months, and the number of empty shops is actually set to double within a decade.

It goes without saying that these are testing times for retailers. The economy is unstable. High street staples like Maplin and Toys ‘R’ Us are fading away. Stalwarts like Marks & Spencer and House of Fraser are making cuts, too.

There’s a stark, compounding reason many retails brands are no longer with us: they didn’t keep up with customer trends and preferences. Their marketing was stale.

Communication and experience is key in the digital age, and most of the aforesmentioned brands severely lacked in that department. There was no clear link between physical and digital; no reason for customers to engage with the brand in the long-run, outside of just buying products.

Yes, retail is rooted in transaction. One of Grimsey’s key findings is that stores remain a fundamental part of the customer journey; whether through research, showrooms or fulfilment, 85% of spend touches a physical store.

The need and desire is apparent. What’s changed is the fact that transaction itself isn’t enough to keep customers interested, and retailers in business.

While the past year's business failures have been unprecedented, the food market has proven more resilient. Supermarkets have, by and large, cottoned on to this - shares are booming. Tesco (a longterm client of ours) has seen its highest growth in seven years. 

They’re bridging that gap between in-store and online. They’re introducing digital by way of bespoke apps, sophisticated loyalty schemes and fully integrated, omnichannel marketing campaigns. Not replacing physical with digital. Having them run along in tandem.

You might loathe John Lewis’ Moz the Monster for ruining a Beatles song, but when the ad debuted online - unlike most of its contemporaries, which premier in dedicated TV slots - it become the most-watched festive ad within 24 hours of launch. The retailer subsequently reported record-busting Christmas week sales. Cheers, Moz.

John Lewis is massive, and its success can’t be replicated to the same degree by other retailers. But the power of nostalgia coupled with, well, quality seems to be a winning formula. Moz is the imaginary friend you always yearned to be real. In practice, he’s a cosy blanket of familiarity that’ll swaddle customers into the next phase of retail experience.

Despite Grimsey’s claim that there’s "no point clinging to a sentimental vision of the past", it can work a treat when future-proofed.

HMV is laughing to the bank with the amount of vinyl it shifts. But that’s coupled with an increase of in-store gigs and signings - everyone from Busted to Metallica and Kylie. A redesigned membership scheme. A focus on "entertainment" in a broader sense, bringing gaming, music and film memorabilia to the fore rather than just focusing on the media itself.

And no, flogging vintage-style Black Sabbath shirts isn’t going to save the high street. But it’s hammering home that point again: retail is an experience. A human, interactive, social activity.

Grimsey makes some on-the-nose observations throughout the report and I agree with his sentiment that our high streets have been "synonymous with innovation".

The UK was home to the world’s first department store, we introduced the world’s first high street cashpoint and we have an enviable history of developing phenomenally successful global retail brands.

Our high streets have been world leaders for centuries. But to adapt to the 21st century’s challenges, retailers must recapture the insight, the entrepreneurial mojo that once made them great.

They can’t afford to dig their heels in and resist change. It’s too late. It’s already happened, and it’s not going to stop.

They’ve got to focus on what people want, by communicating on a level beyond "Hey, buy this!" By connecting the emotional aspect of in-store retail with the functional side of digital. By actually appealing to customers’ best interests, the UK high street stands more than a fighting chance.

Phil Pawsey is executive creative director at shopper marketing agency Blackdog.

Picture: Apple's in-store experience programme, which won the Grand Prix for Brand Experience at Cannes Lions.