Why offline retailers must embrace the digital world

By Oliver Rowbory  

Starting up a new offline retail business today can be daunting. You don’t have to look very hard to find articles bemoaning the death of the High Street, reports on how everyone now does their Christmas shopping online or even how the giants of retail are slowly squeezing smaller competitors out of business. You would have to be crazy to even try, right?

Well actually, no. The truth is that while the retail landscape may have changed dramatically over the last decade, there are still thousands of small and medium sized independent retailers across the UK who are successfully carving out their own lucrative niches. Rather than seeing it as a threat, the smartest independents are now embracing the opportunities digital brings and using them in a way that allows them to play to their own strengths.

It is important to recognise that the digital world has transformed customer expectations and behaviour, and that transformation is just as significant for offline businesses too. You don’t need to be a technical whizz, but if you’re setting up a new shop or even a market stall, here are three fundamental things you must get right.

Today, the lines between online and offline worlds are so blurred that they simply cannot be viewed in isolation. Your customers might shop with you offline, but recent reports show that 83% of people in the UK made a purchase online last year, and that means it is fairly likely that even your most loyal customers may have also contributed to Amazon’s whopping £4.4billion revenue.

Even if you have no intention of selling your products online, having a strong online presence will add to your credibility. 95% of adults in the UK now use the internet and 44million people carry a smartphone, so a good online presence will help your offline store get found by new customers and because the world is now so connected, it could even help facilitate getting it reviewed and recommended by existing ones.

Investing in a reliable, well designed, intuitive website may seem like an unnecessary expense when you’re opening a shop, but it will pay dividends over time. Similarly, social media is something many small businesses shy away from, but if you’re going to become a valued part of your local community, you need to be engaged with that community online too. Done well, it could be the most cost-effective marketing tool you have at your disposal.

Many people see the idea of using data as something that is exclusively for online businesses and retail giants. After all, analysing and using such information requires expensive data integrations and skilled technical staff to support and work on these platforms if you are going to translate the data into anything useful, right?

In some ways the smart use of “big data” is what has given retail giants a competitive advantage for many years, but the good news is there is now a plethora of low-cost tools and technology that will enable even the smallest offline retailers operate more efficiently.

It wasn’t long ago that most retailers relied on a point of sale system that was little more than a calculator and a cash drawer. Today, a till can become the central hub that pulls together data from all the different touch points in your business. It can enable you to spot seasonal demand trends, manage cash flow, get smarter about how you organise stock and staff, and even understand your customers better, adding real long-term value to your business.

In today’s increasingly anonymous digital world, genuine human interaction is scarcer than ever before. However, this only makes it more valuable, and therefore presents a real opportunity for offline retailers.

The level of service offered by online retailers is advancing all the time, with more and more of the retail giants using artificial intelligence to make the customer experience personalised and efficient. The one thing computers still cannot do, however, is add creativity, empathy or passion, which is why you need engaged, motivated people in your business. Whether you’re a High Street retailer or a market stall, you must play to your strengths and make a human, emotional connection with customers if you are going to build long-term relationships.

Oliver Rowbory, pictured above, is co-founder of The Good Till Co., a cloud-based POS system that gives independent retailers, bars and cafes access to powerful data intelligence.  www.thegoodtill.com