All I want for Christmas is…a digital high street

London Christmas lights
Last time I visited Lush in Westfield, there was a jug of Moscow Mules by the door and a bowlful of M&Ms to help yourself to. A few shops down, Rigby & Peller were handing out glasses of Prosecco to anyone who fancied a browse.

Now that’s my definition of “social” shopping. But a good few more can be found in From UK High Street to Networked High Street – Eva Pascoe and Niki Gomez’s 2013 response to the Portas Review of 2011. It’s a well-written vision of how technology can improve (save?) our high streets. Here are my takeaways (no pun intended):

1. We’re lucky in the UK to have rich diversity in our high streets: “Each of our High Streets is a mix of different patterns of retail, leisure and services,” write Pascoe and Gomez. “These patterns are like multicolour mosaics, they are very unique, steeped in the history and diverse in demographics.”

Talking to friends who live in smaller, newer cities like Sydney or Tel Aviv, this complex tapestry does not exist everywhere. Things that Londoners take for granted – having access to hundreds of cultural and networking events every week, for example – simply aren’t possible in many other cities. We should make the most of it, and build on that diversity – rather than moaning (as we Brits love to do).

2. High Streets are no longer just about shopping: “As urban space is at a premium, the social aspect of creating together, sharing tools, innovating in a collective where creative people can spark off each other, are to be cherished. We should investigate how to push this along as we try to get innovation back into the High Street.”

Absolutely – outfits like 3Space, Workspace and the Hub are already doing great work in this area.

3. There’s a real opportunity for innovative digital “outfitters” to provide High Street businesses with connectivity at a hyper-local level. As Pascoe and Gomez point out: “Facebook is used for individual retailer or service providers and is not integrated into any joined-up High Street marketing calendar or aggregated discount lists for local customers. Very few independents or small service providers like nail bars, take-aways, dry-cleaners or even small indie bookshops use Email or Twitter for effective day-to-day marketing.”

And I like the concept of the Networked High Street tool box (which ties in nicely with the new tech showcased at London Social Media Week): “The Networked High Street requires an agile set of management tools that will be able to receive incoming data from the changing local landscape, interpret it and send it back to the Network participants as messaging to continue defining the High Street proposition in real-time.”

I love the idea of hyper-local digital interaction and use of big data with High Street reacting in real time to changing situation and needs.

4. Customer service has gone full circle – or at least, has the potential to do so: as Pascoe and Gomez say, big data enables online retailers to know everything about their customers, “just as Mr Baker knew his customers in a typical English village circa 1930”. Maybe we can at last wave goodbye to those giant “faux” friends so beloved of 20th century advertising – fun at the time but a true red herring as far as real customer relationships were concerned.

5. Every technology strategy needs its champions; Pascoe and Gomez have identified the High Street’s “SuperHeroes”: “We’ve observed that the SuperHeroes (Sweaty Betty, some Indie bookshops, many bike repair/retail shops, some nail bars, some Leisure Centres) emerge from a variety of sectors and drive the footfall by active online engagement, thus creating a centre of interest that others can leverage following the best practice.”

Ten years ago at the Cass Creatives debate on Fashion, the audience pretty much agreed that they didn’t like the idea of buying stuff online – Natalie Massenet from Net-a-Porter argued that she’d found ways to recreate the sensual experience, and that people’s attitudes would change. She was so right. Fast forward to today and I do virtually all my shopping online.

How things change. These days, it’s unusual for me to actually go into a physical shop – but I’ll be doing so tonight – as usual, I’ve left it too late to rely on the post, and I want to get all my Christmas shopping in one go. My family have wishlists on Amazon and in the spirit of UK solidarity, it wouldn’t be right to spend my yuletide cash there. But tonight, my shopping will be as much about the experience as it is about the consumables. I’m just hoping Lush will have the cocktails in.

Photo: Mika Ueno

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