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Use modern tools and imagination to stay afloat

It’s hard to imagine a commercial sector facing a more harsh environment right now than high street retailers. Big or small, they are falling by the wayside at an alarming rate.

Like all of life’s most complex challenges, there’s no one fix for this and there are a plethora of reasons for it happening in the first place.

But are we convinced that all those who went to the wall in this climate had done everything possible to stop that happening? Personally, I’m not. Selling things is a people business, which means there are so many touch points to appeal to your customers it’s almost bewildering.

You need reach those who shop based on an array of motivations, ranging from vanity, to necessity and everything in between. The question is, how many shops are pushing the boundaries of their expertise beyond the dark art of merchandising and into communications (some would say an equally dark art…)?

Yes, some have tried the recent fad of coupon and voucher websites to drum up trade, in the absence of any better ideas. Unfortunately, many have had cause to regret ever getting into that relationship.

What seems to be missing is the desire to positively engage with customers, rather than to rely on passively drawing them into what you hope is an attractive store, or one that survives purely on trying to be the cheapest. We’re in an era where a huge swathe of the population is connected to the world all the time through a device in their pocket. To make life even easier for those who want to talk to them, most have signed themselves up to services that give an open channel for their attention and more often than not are advertising their physical location, making timely marketing a growing reality.

If harnessing that potential was straightforward, everyone would be doing it, but how many are really trying? You don’t need to be Marks & Spencer to get creative with technology. Many of the channels customers are using are open to the average business to engage in at little or no charge. What’s required is a bit of research into the possibilities mixed with a dash of imagination.

It tells us all we need to know that as HMV was marching its staff one-by-one out of its stricken headquarters, a junior member of office staff was merrily documenting the process on HMV’s own Twitter account. That the account wasn’t locked-down, monitored and supervised as the precious resource it is by senior staff is both horrifying and depressing. HMV’s audience are the very people making best use of technology and social communication. It’s a company that should have been at the cutting of engaging its customers.

Retail is one of the oldest trades (perhaps next only to the one they call the oldest profession – though I’m not trying to draw a parallel…) and as such has the benefit of being based on centuries of refinement and best practice. However, with such depth comes a lot of baggage and sometimes a fear of innovation.

When the world is moving on so quickly around you, you have no choice but to go with it. Everyone with something to sell has been given a portal into the pockets of their customers and, thereby, a new and effective way to win hearts and minds, differentiating themselves from remote and often frustrating online competitors.

If the high street loses this battle, not only is it the retailers who will suffer, but the service sector business that nestle around and above them, as well as you and I who will be the worse for the loss of community that a stroll down the high street provides.

Not all communication has to be high-tech, but to have an effect it has to be carried out in the first place – and it has to go beyond posters in the window! As human beings we’re predisposed to respond to the right overtures and to build relationships where a personal benefit is quite clear to us. Until high street retailers learn that again, I fear the doors will keep closing for good.

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