The high street isn't dying. Stores are.
Every pundit these days agrees that high street retail is in its death throes. Over the last few years we've seen one after another big brand struck down as the credit crunch magnified a consumer trend away from the high street. There is little doubt that we haven't seen the last of this as the remaining entertainment chains crumble and the electronics sector hovers on the edge of collapse.
Despite this we love to shop. Sure, the economic malaise of the past years has hurt the discretionary amount we can spend but if one looks at multi-channel retail overall there is little to no decline in overall consumer spend. Those who cry about the death of the high street are missing the fact that the high street isn't dying - stores are.
Transactional based stores have no competitive advantage to their online brethren. Online is faster, cheaper, more transparent and overall easier to use as a consumer. If high street stores exist as a place to simply transact they are sure to lose to the efficiency of online retail. The carcasses we see wheeled off the high street are not the remains of high street retail but rather of those stores which try to compete with a transactional model stacked against them.
There has to be a meaningful move away from transaction based stores if we are to see the high street flourish (and I have no doubt that it will flourish again). The same aspects which make online retail so deadly to bricks&mortar stores also are its greatest detriment. Online is efficient, impersonal, and transactional - all areas which can be seen as a weakness by a true consumer focussed store. Unfortunately, b&m stores have been so focussed on fighting in the transactional arena with online that they have abandoned the areas where they have an advantage.
One of the weaknesses of the online transaction model is that brands have few opportunities to shape brand perception and introduce new products. There is little editorial power in most online retail and it is not an area where online retail has a inherent advantage. An ideal offline store focussed on consumer experience, engagement and advice provides an ideal platform for brands to build their messaging and gain new customers.
Simply put, the high street needs to change its focus from "how do we sell more products" to "how do I create value for consumers". The former mentality is what has led to commission based sales agents, pop-psychology mind games like DSGi's "FIVES" and never dying zombie promotions advocating 2-for-1 deals. Instead, I'd like to imagine a future high street where walking into a store meant walking into a carefully curated and edited selection of products staffed by experts in respective fields who don't care whether I transact with them or with Amazon.
The end game in this shift seems to be that online retail is going to be the master of transacting and they will battle on a field of pricing, product service and technical information. In contrast to this, offline retail will be a series of showrooms battling each other for knowledge, product support, learning and personal advice. In one sense online retail will be the wholesale catalogues of yesteryear and the high street will be the editorial magazines where brand, voice and curation are key.