Using Retail Events to Save the High Street

In the last year, the COVID-19 pandemic ruthlessly forced thousands of retailers to close their stores forever. One could assume the consequences of the pandemic will put an end to the ongoing discourse on the future of high streets. However, do not jump to conclusions too early. The CX Insider podcast recorded a miniseries of four episodes discussing the current retail challenges, out of which one of them is the constantly decreasing retail footfall. We invited speakers from different sectors, backgrounds and areas of specialisation who agreed that the high street is no near its end. Jason Sit, an academic researcher from the University of Portsmouth, was the first guest to join our retail-focused podcast series.


Episode 33


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Episode Summary 


Is brick and mortar retail dead?

Anyone who thinks brick and mortar retail is dead is naive, says Jason Sit quoting Paul Marchant, CEO of Primark. According to Sit, retailers should first rethink why they need a physical store and how it fits into their omnichannel strategy. The old concept of high streets is dead because customers can nowadays buy almost anything online. Does it mean people will stop shopping offline? Not necessarily. For example, a week after the second lockdown, the UK’s retail footfall increased by 85% in a single day. Despite fighting the current battle with COVID-19 and having had the opportunity to do Christmas shopping from the comfort of your home, people chose to go out.


How do you attract customers back to stores?

Organising events is an effective way to increase footfall. However, there are a couple of reasons retailers are reluctant to take this approach. First, event marketing is risky and more expensive than promotional offers. Second, increasing footfall does not guarantee people spending their money. Nevertheless, both footfall and purchasing behaviour could be encouraged by utilising near-field communication technology and push notifications via mobile phones. To demonstrate a couple of examples of how events and technology can increase in-store traffic, Starbucks uses location tracking to attract their customers to nearby shops. Lego’s Christmas campaign A Really Cool World encouraged customers to see twelve different displays and do their last-minute shopping in Covent Garden. Attendees obtained free tickets by registering online.

“There are 3 billion mobile phone users in the world. Retailers should take that into their advantage.”


Can you benefit from showrooming?

Although retailing is about selling, shop assistants should not aim to close a sale every time they talk to a customer. It is essential to understand that showrooming is a crucial part of the consumer decision making process. Customers search online for convenience and visit stores for the physical experience. While they might not buy your product at the store, the in-store experience can positively influence their purchase decision to your advantage later that day when they get home and order the product online or come back and buy it at your store a week later.

For more information, listen to the full episode of the podcast on your preferred channel.

Written by Valentina Svobodova linkedin


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Full episode transcript

Louis: Today, Jason Sit, a specialist researcher from the University of Portsmouth, talks to us about his findings on how retailers can increase footfall using experience and educational events. We also discuss how organizations can improve their customer in-store experience using omnichannel technology. Don't forget to join the discussion on LinkedIn by searching CX Insider and let us know what you think of the episode. Thanks for listening.

Valentina: Hello, everybody, welcome to another episode of Sex Insider. This is Valentina speaking, joined by Louis, as usual. And today I have the privilege to welcome our guest, Jason Set, who is a senior lecturer in marketing at the University of Portsmouth. As a student of Portsmouth University myself, I've had the opportunity to attend a couple of Jason's amazing lectures and seminars. How are you, Jason, today?

Jason: Very good. Thank you for a very nice introduction, Valentina.

Valentina: You're welcome. Thank you for coming. Jason, you have dedicated your research career to omnichannel retailing and customer experience and your papers, some of which we will discuss later in this episode, have been published in various international journals. Before we get there for a start, I would like to ask you a bit broader question. To provide the audience with some facts and figures for a better picture. The first weekend after lockdown, retail footfall increased by 85 per cent in England in a single day. In fact, this figure half of the annual decline in footfall. But considering the year on year decline in footfall and a rapid increase in online retailing, is this number 85 per cent some kind of it may be a bit predictable before Christmas, but is this some kind of anomaly in the year on year decline? Or. My question to you, Jason, is, is bricks and mortar retail dead?

Jason: I think it's a very good question. And it has been a question that I'm sure many traditional retailers, when I say traditional retailer, means that those that have started with bricks and mortar ask themselves. And obviously this day we are overwhelmed with facts and information about the death of High Street. The closure of many famous brands such as Arkadia, Debenhams and so on and so forth. I guess one would immediately say, of course, that high street because of this incident and also the pandemic, the covid-19 pandemic is not helping either. It is kind of pushing people to shop online because of social distancing and a series of national lockdowns. But having said that, if you look closely, very, very closely in the High Street, you will see a few exceptional and yet very successful retailers there, such as Primark, Poundland, TKMax and so on and so forth. So why are they still there? And if you think the High Street is dead and in fact,a couple of days ago, the CEO of Primark Paul Marchant talked about eye courts. He talked about anyone who thinks shopping in person is over, is naive. I can agree with him more. I absolutely agree with this statement because I don't think High Street is dead. I don't think shopping in person is dead. I do recognize the function of High Street, the way we should definitely have changed it so that it will require us to rethink and perhaps even repurpose the high street and the store, that brick and mortar store we have.

Valentina: I absolutely agree with you, and yet it seems the pandemic is somehow accelerated the closure of physical stores, but yet there are still high street retailers who are who doesn't seem to be affected by that much to such a large extent. So what do they do differently? What could actually retailers do in order to attract higher footfall in stores? If you think that high street or bricks and mortar retail is not dead?

Jason: I think they need to rethink why they need a physical store or brick and mortar store. Traditionally, brick and mortar stores serve many purposes, one of them as a showroom and another one is for you to buy merchandise or product. The fact that most retailers have a presence online means omnichannel and of course, also social media. Do they still need the store to display everything they have? Or will the store serve for different purposes, for example, maybe the store needs to focus more on customer service, such as managing product returns, dealing with questions or queries from a customer or exchanging and so on? So and and I think we really need and also perhaps the size of the store that we need may need also rethinking, because I think there are many reasons why the purpose or the importance of physical store have change. And one obviously is our shopping behaviour. And also, I think also the reason and I think another reason is. Many retailers have fallen into the category of being complacent. They have one format and that is simply replicate the same format or the same design for all the store in a different location. But if you were thinking about if I were to use Nandos as an example, different than those in different locations, although they're selling the same products, which is chicken and the side dishes and but different store, different shops they have in different locations, say Reading versus Guildford versus Oxford that they are completely different. Maybe a retailer needs to think about whether a localized approach would be effective of getting people back. And the second one is thinking, how can they use events such as pop-up events to get people back. Before this recording, I just came across an article talking about Lego, how Lego has created a pop-up event in Covent Garden showing or exhibiting 12 different display to have about Christmas and then getting people to come to Covent Garden to actually look at this display, temporary course, to make sure that people maintaining social distancing and so on. So I do think that event has a strategic role to play to get people back. The event has to be temporary. You can't be there forever. Otherwise, it will lose its magic and it need to fit with a purpose or theme or a festive season like Christmas Valentine days. And I think people to want that, especially we have been locked out or, you know, are forced to go into lockdown for so long now, I feel I actually feel people are eager to go out, but there's nothing exciting for them to go to.

Valentina: Hmm, yeah, yeah, that's that's true, and it's definitely a good question to, as a retailer, ask yourself, why do I need a physical store? If you can offer the same value online nowadays and it's more and more people actually buy and do the shopping online, it seems like the physical store needs to reshape their values. And according to you, then event events marketing or events themselves can offer this kind of value in physical retailing and in long term it can attract customers.

Jason: Yes. And also think about localized experience as well. Yeah, I think about I know consistency is important, but at the same time people want something unique. For example, I would be more inclined to go to, say, John Lewis store in Bournemouth if I know that the John Lewis store Bournemouth is quite different from the one in, say, Portsmouth. And I think each store have their own heritage and whole history. I mean, why wouldn't retailer think about that? I think it comes down to costs, you know, and I think because obviously having a standardised store format or standardised store experience is safe money, but then, in turn, it creates a homogeneity or sameness. So basically everything does look the same.

Valentina: Yeah, yeah. I have seen this happening in in physical bookstores, local bookstores, even if it's like a chain of bookstores in each city, they invite, for example, local authors, local people to to kind of be more localized, even if it's a chain. So I can I can see this being an effective way. Are there any are there any risks of the event marketing in retail?

Jason: We see one of the reasons is the return on investment because obviously they are not cheap. And whether you're doing it in-house or higher and an urgent agency to do it, they're often not cheap, especially now because of COVID. Then you have to also think about social distancing and the timing and the planning and who knows how much the public liability would cost, which is the insurance if anything happened. And so the although, you know, having event control footfall, we know that especially something exciting, something new and something shiny, but then doesn't guarantee everyone to come to the event to spend money. So I think the risk is more to do with the retail investment, because it's not that we every power you invest will in turn generate the equal or more amount. So I think that's why many retailers are reluctant to do that in state. They will prefer to invest in promotional offers or free keeps because they are more tangible. They know that and they can also measure it more easily so they can see how how how many promotional offer people take up or how many free gift they sign up to. So they are tangible result that can that allow retailers to track and less likely when they are a bit more intangible or more subjective other than looking at footfall or traffic's.

Valentina: Yeah, I see it's a definitely good tool to raise brand awareness, but that doesn't equal profit increase. Yeah, so from a customer experience perspective, when organizing these events, is there a way to distinguish or how would you distinguish the participants who event who attend these events in the retail stores? How could like is there a way to kind of predict all these people who will attend the event will definitely purchase like an act of purchase behaviour?

Jason: I think one way is the use of technology, especially mobile technology. I recently recently read an article top about or at least suggest that at the moment there are around three billion mobile phone users on the planet. OK, so especially because of COVID, we have to use our mobile phone more and more for different purposes, for signing into Test and Trace, for scanning the menu, for making a payment. I think we can utilize that in a positive way. For example, for you to attend, for example, the Lego pop-up exhibition I mentioned earlier. In order to go to the exhibition, you have to sign up. So most likely you will request people to give you your name, your mobile phone number and email address. And then with that detail, obviously, then there are fine print and so on and so forth. So once people come to the event and you may even ask them whether they're happy to accept any introductory offer or promotion offer using the near field communication and push communications. And many retailers have used that. And I know one of the example would be Starbucks. So if you actually sign up to the mobile app and if you happen to be in the proximity of a Starbucks store, and then they will actually push a message, you say in it 1 mile or 0.5 mile, there is a Starbucks in this on this street come in and you get a 50% off. I think we can use the same principle for events. So get people to sign up for details, contact details, especially mobile number, and then you utilize the near field communication technology and push messages to get people to actually go to a particular store or take up some offer after they come to the event. So, of course, it required a partnership of maybe different brands. It wouldn't be just one brand, maybe partnership of different brands. I think it could work. I think you distinguish people simply come for events sake or actually people come to the event and actually hoping to do more after the event.

Valentina: I see. That's interesting. So you think this is kind of geolocation tool, this could be later use to attract more people to the events and to make them to increase the commerce in your store?

Jason: Yes, I think we can use it for many purposes. We can use the geolocation tool to get people to allow them to find, for example, if you build into a game. So if it gamify the experience, it's a bit like Pokémon go. Right. So let's say I put a number of display in different location in, let's say, Covent Garden, and you go and look for them. And if you find all the 12 display and you get a free gift and then you buy say, after you've done that, then you can say, OK, now if if if you want to, you can actually go to the nearby Lego store and then you get a A 20 percent. So you can even combine that. So what the free gift to claim the free give after you have filed the display, you have to go to a Lego store to claim it. So and if you have if if you're going there with your chewin, unlike the chance of you leaving the store empty handed, that is very small, I think. So you're cheering make you to buy something or you yourself might buy something. So I think you can tie into into that. So so you gave me a fine experience and then you offer some incentive to get people to come to the store to claim the incentive and then hopefully that will increase the travel time in the store in turn spending.

Louis: Amazing. I just want to expand on a point you made about about events. We work with a lot of banking organisations and high street branches have been leveraging events over the past few years, but in a different way to normal retail. So we've been talking about how retailers can use events to facilitate sales. But banking have been using events to educate their customers and provide value to very specific groups of people, for example, first time home buyers to educate them about mortgages and also online banking and tech literacy for more of the ageing population. This is obviously huge for organisations because not only does it help with brand trust, it also creates more of a community around the High Street. How do you see these kinds of events being used, not not, not obviously we see it being used in banking, but being used in a broader context. Can retailers use these sort of community events to bring people to the to their stores?

Jason: Definitely. I absolutely think that is very important. I think especially that has been before the pandemic. There has been a lot of literature, academy and commercial talk about people want to be connected with the community more and more, and especially in affluent areas. Those educational events are even absolutely important because at the end of day, I'm sure you probably have heard heard these four for those who study marketing. People, when people buy a drill, they don't buy that for the drill they buy it because they want a hole for whatever purpose. So people want solution so that apply to all the products we we consume as a consumer. So we buy clothes for certain purposes, for certain reasons. I think the educational event is the same. The education event event can help people to see, for example, to to teach them a skill set or some knowledge, either be, let's say, planting some flowers or plotting, you know, some some plans reading the garden or maybe how to fix some frame in the house. I think people enjoy doing it because and also especially for for older people. And I think they sometimes feel quite isolated and so on and so forth. I think those education even actually not only help to develop new skill set or knowledge for consumer, in turn, get them to know more about what your product can do. I know at the end of day it's selling for sure, but people will also appreciate that they're learning something different, something they can use, and also is a good social event as well. And because people can come and meet and and people share similar interests and I have seen example, things like a bakery will offer a baking lesson for people with a fee or free have seen not so much in UK, but definitely when when I was living in Australia and also example from United State Hardware Store will offer like some woodchipping workshop or some painting workshop, teaching people how to paint and so on so it can work. So those are education event people because people want to learn something. People want to be able to use something. And in the process, they probably will buy into your product more.

Louis: Yeah, definitely. And that just adds even more value to the theory that the High Street is is not dying, but instead transforming. Absolutely, yes. And in a previous episode, we've spoken about the idea of showrooming and this is a problem for retail because it's you know, it's individuals who start their purchasing journey in the physical stores so they can see and feel a product, but then finding a cheaper alternative online and finishing that journey there. This is obviously not good for retail. If the organization can't make the sale themselves online, if they go to like Amazon or a cheaper retailer, how can retailers use showrooming to their advantage? And if so, can they can they use it to improve the in-store experience in any way?

Jason: I think you can. I think one of the things that we must remember we cannot get rid of showrooming is part of is part of the retail shopper behavior. People will search online, offline and then before they buy. So I'll think one of the the thing that retailers can do is when people come to your store and do research, make sure you really appreciate and take advantage of the moment. Funny enough, as becoming as our shopping behavior become more digitalised, I think personal selling actually become even more important. I think sometimes we forget about that. And when I talk about personal selling, not simply about, hi, how are you, James, how can I help you? It's not the kind of mundane robotic response, but really try to understand what people look for as some question, not simply push, but then try to understand what they're looking for. Of course, you should back off if they say no at the knee. Anyhow, I'm browsing, but I think the person is selling, building a relationship, becoming important. That's why John Lewis is slightly managing the showrooming better than any other retailer, because people are to believe in their excellent customer service and people know the product. People can answer them without the primary purpose of selling to you. And of course, again, I appreciate that retailing is about selling, but if it can master the balance between a building relationship, helping customer with a if a problem in addition to sell. So I think that is a subtlety there.I think you you will find people actually come back because as much as it's convenient to buy online, it come with a lot of hassles as well. Think about think about returning a TV to Amazon. I just I can't imagine it's not simply those, you know, repackaged, you know, and then bring it to a post office. Can you? I mean, yes, you can perhaps organize a career to come and pick it up or collect it, but it is quite a hassle. Yeah. Wouldn't you rather spend a little bit more and despite from a, I don't know, current PC World or John Lewis, and then they might even that with delivery and then they might actually install it for you. So also think about additional service as well. One of the things that Amazon is not doing at the moment is offer those additional service, you know, delivering it, installing it, taking those packaging away, you know, disposing of your own OTV or electronics. So do you think about the journey where the pain point, where are the hassles that would stop or hidden people from buying and then focus on that, then would drive people to buy from you more?

Louis: Yeah, absolutely. When you when you were mentioning buying a TV from Amazon and then having to return, it reminded me of an experience I had recently. I bought a coffee machine off Amazon and unfortunately, I received it and it was broken on on opening a package. And that was, you know, you can buy it was quite a large box. And I had to arrange for the courier service to come and pick it up. But what I do love about John Lewis and in the future I will buy these sort of products from from this kind of store, is that they have a whole separate they have a whole separate area, a customer service two, which is separate from the sales team. So that way, if you have an issue with the product, you can take it there. And the way they handle your complaint is entirely different to any kind of sales pitch or from a sales perspective, because it's all about ensuring you have the best possible experience in store and with that product, which I love and and if I bought a coffee machine from now, I could have easily had it replaced with a note to self and future.

Jason: Yeah. Go back to the classical example of marketing, focus on solution and the sales will come.

Louis: You know, last conversation, we we spoke about the idea of reverse showrooming, you could webrooming, which is an interesting terminology I'd never heard before, and you wrote a research paper on this. And in that paper, you identified some some factors that influence the online search and in-store purchase process. So I would like if you if you if you would be able to just quickly touch on what the idea of Web grooming is and what interesting findings did you review?

Jason: Yeah, sure. And that the Web brooming already mentioned Louis is the reverse of showrooming where people search online and then buy, install. And we know that this again, is a very common behavior. People search online and then and then they buy install. One of the things that we find is the reason people search online is because it is again, is convenient, efficient. You can search multiple things and people can do it while they're at home watching a TV the to double screen or while they're on the train. And then they'll buy install and because that they can go and talk to people and so on. I think what really differentiate between online search and offline buying is I would like to think if I were to narrow down to one thing is that physical touch. So at the end of day one of the one of the things that consumer would not give up is able to touch the product. And there have been a lot of literature about touch, you know, touching and sensing and feeling the feeling the product. So I think we need to remember that. And again, if I were to use an example, would be the Apple store. Why is the Apple store always so busy, you know, and people always go there and try to touch, you know, the new iPhone or the new iMac or the new tablet, because that for that reason, that physical touch and linked to like the sense of place, a sense of experience. So I think we it's something quite powerful. And I think sometimes retailers forget about that.

Valentina: That's very interesting. Some people call it the Apple experience.

Jason: Yes. But the Apple experience is very much a built on the touch experience. If you recall the way the Apple store has been designed with long benches, no chair, and you can room around and to have a range of products, multiple of them of the same product, allow you to to touch and play with. And you see that later on Argos and other Currey PC world have, I wouldn't say copy, but definitely follow the same design, the store design.

Louis: Of course. Ok, then then in regards to the technology to facilitate, we're presuming that you discuss in your paper, do you have any recommendations for managers or decision makers that could allow this process to be better, better implemented?

Jason: Yes, I think one of the recommendation is really use the mobile technology better. And I think one of the reason, in my opinion, one of the reasons people with such online and then come to a stop because doing research on Lycees easier, especially at home and you are not stress, and when you have the free time and the things that people tend to research are like word of mouth, like customer feedback and also specification or features, if you're buying something electronic or having on the screen, say, whether it be a tablet or laptop and it's easy to read, I think retailer can utilize that would be better in-store if if they want to incorporate technology, especially mobile technology, into it. For example, have a QR code that allow people to scan if they want to read the customer feedback, having a functions that allow people to actually easily compare the different brand of a product, whether it be television, whether it be a coffee machine or the different models of the same brand, because this day we are overwhelmed. I would like to say we are overwhelmed with choices, whatever you buy. And how do you know Model A is different from Model B? Yes, they may have a little signage next to the product, but often they are very small, they are very technical and not easy to understand. And if you can create technology, whether it be allowing people to use their mobile phone or having a electronic screen that allow people to compare, I think that will facilitate people coming to your store more and then buying from from you. And then also bring in the personal element as well, because when buying something that especially high price, highly technical people to want to talk to people just have a chat, you know, and and so to make sure that is the right one like choice for them.

Louis: Yeah, absolutely, I love the idea of having a QR code that opens up the online reviews, it seems like the perfect bridge between channels that would allow the customer to even possibly finish their journey online that they started in the store at the same retailer. That's a very good idea.

Jason: Yes, I think I think the power of word of mouth is so strong. I mean, I think people at this, they often look at the word of mouth light, whether it be negative or positive and the volume of it. I think we are not incorporating that in store very well. The only one I can think of to have used that is lately when I was in Wasiq combo's some some time ago and lately, Bassie was promoting a new product to create a special display promoting this. I think it was a mop or some sort of floor cleaner. And then on in addition to that, to actually have a number of customer feedback. But in writing, yeah, so they had three or four that have say Amy say this and John say that. But if, if you can if, if it can electrify it or digitalize it. And as I say earlier, there are around three billion mobile users on the planet at the moment. All of them have mobile phones and we are getting used to using mobile phone for different reason because of Colvert. Why don't you then take advantage of this trend and then combine mobile technology with what of now install and then actually stop people from going somewhere else or as you say, maybe even speed up the decision making process if they feel confident or knowledgeable enough of making a decision.

Louis: Absolutely, and everyone's getting so much better at using their smartphones for scanning QR codes and loads of different things, and most people's smartphones have got QR code routers built into the default camera. Unlike that, you're Valentina and you don't have that in your phone. We won't judge Valentina. I'm never going to let this go on on that topic of humor. We discuss what you're doing next in your research. And I found a super interesting I wanted to quickly touch on it. You're researching how organizations can manage PR crises with with humor and how organizations can better use it in their marketing. Do you think there's any way that retailers can can better use humor and capitalize and leverage leverage to create better experiences?

Jason: I would like to think so. So I'm no, I'm being biased. I would like to think so. I guess because of the pandemic, people really, really feeling sad, feeling down. And I think humor can help to cheer us up. And when you look at humor in health psychology that talk about humor being a positive psychology that can help patient cancer patients or patients with terminal illness to cope better and somehow even recover. And again, if I were to use a real life example, like the McDonald Royal Hospital or Royal House, where I mean, I'm not a real person, I find them scary. But there's some some people find Klau funny. So that's why McDonnel actually, you know, have clouds going around and then show the children up. I think retail I'm not saying that retailers should use clowns, probably would bakcfire. I'm thinking if it were to be creative and think about, OK, how can we create a fun or humorous experience, whether it would be I don't know, I yeah, I don't know, just maybe a talking show or something. I think that would make it be interesting. I mean, we have seen humor being used in marketing a lot, such as packaging or in advertising. Why not in experience, design and delivery? Absolutely.

Louis: So, yeah, some some of the interactions I've seen on social media between social media teams of large corporations have and have been tackling large issues with with humor between these social media accounts. And it it must be intentional because everything was posted on these corporate social media accounts, go through a lot of processes to to check that it is appropriate because they have got millions of followers. And that's quite interesting to me at least.

Jason: No, I agree because I think let me just say that say that people find humor, content, humorous, content, easier to connect with. Somehow your brain is just like that is, I think, a bit like something make us laugh and make us happy somehow. Your body react to that more easily and positively, I think. Yeah, I do not know how I'm being honest. I think I would like to think that there is a role for humor to play in the design and delivery of retail experience online as well as in-store.

Louis: Absolutely. Maybe this is an area we can touch base again on in future.

Jason: Yes, I would like to thank you.

Louis: Definitely. Unfortunately, though, we're running out of time. It's been amazing having this conversation with you, Jason. Super interesting. Thank you. Thank you for your time, Lily and Valentina and your questions. Thank you Valentina. I'll see you guys soon, OK.