Re-inventing the High Street

First published by Digital Catapult Centre, December 2014
Associated Categories Retailing,Speaking - Audio and Video Tags: , , , , , ,

James Woudhuysen spoke on ‘Reinventing the High Street‘ at the Content, Customers & Communities in the Media Landscape conference, held at London’s Digital Catapult Centre, Dec 2014.

Summary: James sets out to explain the key problem underlying high street decline; he explores what is being offered to address this and compares contemporary ambition with developments in 19th Century retail; learning from the past, James suggests a more ambitious approach that would transform high street retail… and address the underlying problems to stem its decline.


As a forecaster, James provided some pause for thought for those considering the ways IT and digital applications could stimulate a reinvention of the high street and argues that a broader, multi-disciplinary approach is necessary for success.

James argues that the starting point for anyone looking to Reinvent the High Street, is to get to grips with the underlying problems that account for its decline – and the leaps of imagination required to turn this around. The key problem for retail is that falling prices have not taken place alongside any significant increases in productivity, and if not addressed, high street retail will continue to decline.

To understand the scale of ambition required today, innovations in 19th century retail provide a very helpful comparison. Interlocking innovations, across areas including transport, storage, design and advertising, historically combined to create a vibrant sector that gave shape to modern retail. Contemporary innovations for high street retail do not compare in ambition or scale; such, that productivity cannot therefore increase on the scale required to make the high street competitive. Focused on innovation in IT alone, James argues that developments currently being discussed such as contactless payment cards, smart labelling (RFID), on demand delivery, will not bring the scale of transformation necessary to revolutionise the high street shopping experience.

James provides some data that indicates Research & Development investment as a percentage of sales for online retailers such as ebay and Amazon, compared with that for traditional high street retail brands such as Marks & Spencers The data indicates that a significant gap has opened up. High Street retailers need to consider the synergies that need to be created between the virtual and physical world; between IT and a broad range of other technologies; between politics and demographics.

The world of the shopper and the shop worker are in need of some dramatic changes to weave together mobile, real world and virtual developments to make shopping as efficient, time-saving – and pleasurable – as possible. The methods of browsing, selection, packaging, picking, stacking and delivery could all be transformed through, for example, extensive use of robotics and new materials such as graphene. James also raises the widespread concerns amongst shoppers that retailers also need to consider – such as loyalty to customers often not being repaid, resulting in loss of trust and suspicions regarding surveillance.

The problem of keeping old customers and enticing new ones will not be solved by only focusing upon data and IT. The pay-off of a more creative multi-disciplinary approach could transform High Street retail, giving online competitors a real run for their money.

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