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Comment: New retail developments must take changing consumer behaviour into account says Rob Shaw of Hybris

Sheffield City Council recently announced plans to invest £480 million in the development of a new retail quarter in the city centre, with the first stores scheduled to open in 2019, along with new offices, homes, and restaurants.

In an environment where three times as many shops closed in 2014 than in 2013 this long-term investment may come as a surprise. However, the problem with bricks-and-mortar commerce is not that people don’t like to shop anymore – 93 per cent of purchases continue to be made on the high street – it’s that brands are failing to accommodate the evolving ways consumers prefer to browse and make purchases.

The fact is consumer shopping habits are changing. People today are more mobile than ever, increasingly wanting to perform complicated cross-channel purchasing journeys, researching products on their mobile ahead of time, or purchasing via a desktop and collecting in-store, for instance. The challenge for retail is to seamlessly join up these areas of consumer interaction to truly enrich the customer engagement.

The success of the Sheffield retail quarter will depend on planners recognising these changing expectations and building them into the project’s blueprints. For example, the in-store environment is one of the richest sources of customer insight, crucial for providing the contextually-aware, personalised services required to stand out from untargeted marketing noise. Individual retail units therefore need to be designed to accommodate technologies that can collect and communicate data generated by shop floor interactions.

Some brands are choosing to arm staff with tablet computers for this purpose, as well as to speed up shop floor enquiry response and to provide the more personalised services customers are coming to expect. What’s more, in some instances these devices are also being used to process payments, a development that may see select retailers abandoning the traditional fixed till point altogether – yet another design consideration for Sheffield’s planners to take into account.

Retail success is increasingly reliant on providing the customer with a complete package so they can research online, browse and buy via the channel of their choice, and collect in-store. This could mean providing free in-store Wi-Fi, allowing users to browse product information, with the added benefit that signing in will give the retailer access to valuable real-time customer information. In addition, Click & Collect is fast becoming an essential link between online and bricks-and-mortar shopping. According to Deloitte, revenues from the service more than doubled in the UK between 2012 and 2014.

A good example of a retailer which has succeeded in modernising its stores is The Entertainer. The independent toy retailer has improved customer enquiry resolution and conversion with shop floor tablet devices, and developed a platform to deliver 30 minute click and collect services – a move that saw sales through click and collect grow by more than 80% over Christmas 2014 and account for 35% of the company’s online sales. Similarly, creative kitchenware retailer Lakeland recently relaunched its website to enable customers to collect an online order at any of its 69 UK stores within an hour of placing their order – a move that has improved both business performance and customer experience.

Planners of the new Sheffield retail quarter should look to innovative brands like The Entertainer for inspiration when designing retail environments that can accommodate these changes. Recognising changes in consumer behaviour, the solutions required to address them, and building them into plans ahead of time will mean the project has a far greater chance of delivering a healthy return on investment.

The development will be hugely important for the city, but it is vital that it is designed with the customer at its heart. As long as this is the case, and the focus is on convenience, choice, value and enjoyable shopping experiences, we can expect to see healthy footfall, conversions and average order values.

Rob Shaw is global vice president of general business and customer engagement at Hybris.