Steadily declining retail footfall confirms shifting consumer behaviour

Footfall in the UK highstreet is on the decline, according to figures by the British Retail Consortium, confirming the consumer shift towards more digital behaviour

Footfall in retail stores fell by 3.3% in April 2018, compared with the same period in 2017, according to figures from the British Retail Consortium (BRC).

The same period last year saw footfall on the up, but no region in the UK saw growth in footfall in April 2018, which marked two months of consecutive decline in people visiting physical retail locations.

Helen Dickinson, chief executive for the BRC, pointed the finger at changing consumer behaviour for these figures, as well as an increase in challenges faced by the business environment.

“While these figures highlight the difficulties faced by retailers, they also point to the evolution of the industry,” she said. “Retailers are embracing changing customer behaviour and adapting to a challenging environment by rebalancing investment in physical and digital infrastructure.”

Since digital adoption has allowed consumers more flexibility in what goods they purchase and when, retailers have had to face declining visits to physical store spaces.

Many believe that in order to adapt to this shift in consumer behaviour, retailers need to change the way stores are used by adopting technology to make stores centres for experiences rather than just places people visit to purchase goods.

But while footfall and retail sales were on the decline, Barclays data suggested consumer spending is still on the increase.

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Diane Wehrle, marketing and insights director of Springboard, claimed hospitality-focused stores did not lose as much footfall as traditional bricks and mortar stores, showing consumers are increasingly looking for experiences rather than purchases.

“It is clear that retail trading is doubly challenged by a thrifty consumer in concert with a continuing predisposition towards leisure rather than retail spend; reflected by a rise in the vacancy rate to 9.2%,” she said.

A comparison between 2018 and 2009 (the last period of time when footfall dropped by a significant percentage), emphasises the impact of digital consumer behaviour on the high street. Across March and April in 2009, during the UK’s period of recession and when consumer spending was low, footfall only dropped by 3.8%, whereas the number of people visiting physical locations across the same two months in 2018 dropped by 4.8%.

The recent opinion of experts at events such as the National Retail Federation Big Show (NRF) is that declining footfall cannot be recovered, and that to tackle this drop in consumers choosing to visit retail locations, more needs to be done to add to the customer experience when interacting with these retailers both online and in stores.

Anne Sheehan, Vodafone’s UK enterprise director, emphasised the importance of digital innovations in achieving this.

“Retailers are now on the cusp of a new era, driven by advances in digital technology that are reshaping consumer expectations,” she said. “This technology presents retailers with the opportunity to deliver more value to customers whether in store, at home or on the move.”

Adapting to consumer behaviour

Many claim there is no “silver bullet” for adapting to the changing consumer behaviour. Some have introduced digital technologies in stores to make the experience more engaging, others have partnered with startups to develop new ideas and take advantage of young companies with innovative technologies and others have focused on their backend supply chain to ensure the digital experience measures up to customer expectation as driven by firms such as Amazon.

“Retailers need to do more to improve and optimise the current experience that they are able to offer to their customers,” said Stephen Ball, senior vice-president for Europe and Africa at Aspect. “Key to this is building and maintaining an omni-channel platform that provides the option to shop and interact through a variety of different media to suit customers’ individual needs and preferences.

“Online and mobile-based shopping have become hugely popular, so tackling the woes of the high street is about taking these experiences and replicating them as effectively as possible across all channels.”

This focus on a seamless customer experience, connecting the dots between online and offline, is one of the ways retailers have been increasingly aiming to keep customers engaged in store experiences.

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