Online’s Impact on the High Street

Online shopping has been something of a phenomenon. What was once thought of as a passing fad has now become the norm. It’s hardly surprising. For the customer, online stores have made shopping much better, with more competitive pricing, more choice and added convenience.

However, online is not for every retailer. There is a large number of small and medium sized retailers that struggle to keep on top of their online presence due to lack of time or resources. 

For these retailers, the growth of online shopping has brought a number of challenges:

A decrease in customer loyalty

Prior to online shopping, there was a high degree of customer loyalty and it was quite normal for subsequent generations from the same family to purchase brands and products from the same store. With a multitude of online stores now offering the same product or service, customer loyalty has often given way to commodity selling and the cheapest price.

Online reviews

At one time, a customer would ask friends and family for advice regarding a product and where to go to get it. This would invariably lead to the recommendation of known and trusted local retailers. With the advent of online review sites, today’s savvy customer gets advice from thousands of others eagerly recommending their favourite online stores.

The smartphone

There is nothing more annoying for a high street retailer than the sight of a customer in their store comparing product specifications on their mobile phone and seeing where they can find it cheaper.

Reduced margins

Many high-street retailers complain they cannot compete with online retailers. The cost of displaying products, holding stock and paying rents and rates is seen as giving online retailers a commercial advantage when it comes to pricing and the amount of profit they can make.

Tailored offers

Today’s online retailers have become extremely sophisticated in offering tailored offers to their clientele through automated Customer Relationship Management software. Knowing a customer’s previous purchases gives a high indication of what they are likely to buy in the future.

Online engagement

Once an online retailer has a customer’s email and social media addresses, it is a simple task to continually engage with the customer. Due to this engagement, the online retailer is top of mind when the customer wishes to buy similar products and services.

Ease and convenience

The customer can make all the purchasing decisions they need to make from the comfort of their home and have their purchases delivered to the door without the stress of going to the shops, parking and queuing at the till.

It’s not all bad news

While online retailing has indeed taken off in the last ten years, it is important that its impact is kept in perspective. According to the Office of National Statistics (October 2019), online retailing accounts for 19.2% of retail sales. That means that over 80% of retail shopping is still done on the high street providing savvy retailers with ample opportunities to make a sale. Also, there is some dispute regarding online retailers having an unfair price advantage. It is true that they don’t have a physical store, however, they still need premises to store their goods, plus they have the additional costs of packaging, shipping and returns. Although this does not necessarily create a level playing field, the difference in overheads is often not as large as maybe thought. 

With that in mind, here is our advice to the small high street retailer looking to compete in a digital age.

Make shopping fun

With a little imagination, the high-street shopping experience can be made highly enjoyable. For example, Pizza Express invited customers to make their own pizzas and Build a Bear invite customers to build their own bespoke cuddly toys. Is it possible that fashion boutiques could make more of ‘dressing up’ or book shops feature live storytelling? The number of ways to make retail shopping more fun is endless.


Creating a niche allows you to target your advertising to people with specific needs, values and expectations. Consider how Lush have cornered the market in hand-made cosmetics and Games Workshop, with their highly niche Warhammer products, saw sales increase by 20% last year.

Loyalty schemes

Loyalty schemes don’t have to cost a fortune or be on a grand scale like the Tesco Clubcard or Nectar Points. Caffe Nero have a simple ‘stamp a card’ scheme whereby you get a free cup of coffee with every ten purchased. Go Outdoors charge £5.00 for their loyalty card that offers large savings on every product throughout the store. Having paid for the card, customers are more likely to use it as they see it as having some value.

Customer experience

Create a desirable customer experience that cannot be offered online. Ensure that the store is clean and tidy and customers can easily find what they want. Make your retail environment friendly and go the extra mile. If people have bought a lot of goods, offer them free delivery so that they don’t have to carry them home. Free refreshments always go down well and allowing customers to use toilet facilities will always draw a ‘desperate’ potential customer. A smile and a personal ‘thank you’ never goes amiss and is so much better than a standard ‘thank you for your custom’ email. 


Although many online retailers are pushing next day delivery, there is nothing quite like seeing an item, buying it and having it in your hand there and then. Instant delivery is something all high-street stores should be shouting about, but very few do.


High street retailers shouldn’t see the smartphone as a threat, but as an indication that someone is ready to buy. Once a customer checks out a product on their phone, you know the customer has found what they want and are looking for a deal.


The main advantage that a high street retailer has over its online counterpart is human contact and the ability to build a relationship.  When someone walks into your store, be pleased as they genuinely want to buy something. Sell to them, ask questions, guide them to what they are looking for, justify the price, explain the benefits and throw in a few extras if you have to. If you don’t make the sale, a competitor will.

Collect data

Use questionnaires and feedback forms to collect email data at every opportunity and keep in touch.  Don’t forget to ask for permission.

Have a web presence

Every business has to have a web presence. Without a web presence, the business will struggle to get found. It needs to look professional and enticing. Even if the business is not selling online, it needs to show its products, explain why a customer should visit the store and provide opening times and directions on how to get there.  It should leave customers in no doubt why they should visit the store. Done properly, a small high street retailer can look as big and as professional as a large high street chain.

Get Social

Showing off new products and engaging with potential clients on social sites is essential. Simple things, like sharing how you’ve helped customers or telling stories about what happens in store, creates brand personality and engagement. Customers go where they are invited and return if they feel their custom is valued. Sharing positive customer experiences not only demonstrates how much customers mean to a business, but creates a warm, welcoming personality that others will want to experience.

For help on establishing a professional presence online and engaging with your customers on social media, drop us a line at