What is the Future for High Street Brands?

January 29, 2013
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There’s been a lot of talk in the media recently about big “household name” brands falling  into the realms of administration and other dark legal sounding words. In the UK at least, it’s almost as if every new Monday brings with it the collapse of one of the high street behemoths we all grew up in the shadow of, and I’m sure the case is very much the same for our American designer cousins across the pond.

The Death of the High Street

Many of the seemingly omnipotent mega brands that have fallen away over these past few weeks, months and years have had a steadily dwindling presence in our lives. Between Netflix and my iPhone my consumer relationship with companies like Blockbuster and Jessops could at best now be described as superfluous. However, it wasn’t until the fall of HMV that the design community has sat up and taken stock of the events surrounding them.

Now this could be that designers are, for the most part, people, and as people would probably like film and music. Therefore we can assume that most people will have had some contact with the biggest retailer of film and music on the high street, and in doing so may on some level mourn the passing of a part of their own consumer history.

Personally I think designer’s took notice because HMV’s branding wasn’t completely shit.

I think that as a group, we designers can sometimes be a little guilty of pinning the successes and failures of enterprises on the quality of design work that they display, and to an extent, that’s true. A lot of consumer decisions are based on how they ‘feel’ about a company and a lot of the time that comes down to the branding of the company. It comes down to us.

In the case of HMV however, their branding was pretty good. Not the best, but certainly not bad enough to warrant a complete collapse of the company. Obviously, the problems with HMV ran a lot deeper and it’s failures can be attributed to a stagnant business model and it’s inaction to grasp a hold on the huge downloads market. It could be because Amazon and Play offer the same products way cheaper online, or it could have been because of a thousand other reasons.

Now HMV has been thrown a potential lifeline, and we can all be glad of that, but the fact remains that in it’s hour of need it’s branding did not protect it. Our efforts as designers did nothing to save this giant from the graveyard.

If HMV can fall, what company on the high street can call themselves safe?

The Birth of a New High Street

I think what we may be seeing the beginnings of here is not the death of the high street so much as a shift in purpose. A rebirth of the high street into something more accessible to public and more open to technology. A place where branding is more important than ever.

Over the last few years it’s become stunning obvious that brands need to become a lot more personal. The rise in social media usage has paved a way for a new type social approval that all brands desperately require. When a consumer tweets out an irritation with a brand or company, the onus is on that company to respond one on one, even if not requested. It’s not a mass movement yet, but it’s a growing realisation that some of the smarter companies are taking to heart. However, no such effort is being made on the high street where these interactions are actually possibly face to face! The majority of shops still place a counter between the public and the sales rep and hide their products behind glass cabinets or stacks of plastic boxes.

I find it utterly insane that the high street is offering the exact same purchasing experience I can receive on Amazon minus the user reviews! Currently our stores are simply pretty warehouses where we pick what we want from a stack of hundreds and buy it from an underpaid teenager that doesn’t want to be there.

It really is no wonder that people are choosing to wait a day for their product to be delivered and stay at home.

So what needs to happen then?

The high street needs to stop selling.

It’s an odd concept I know, but think about this. What if every store was a play room where you could go and just use the products you want to buy. Sure there are still sales reps, but they’re not there for the hard sell, they’re literally there just for information and help. If you want to buy it there and then, then that’s cool, they may have a few purchasable ones in store but more than likely you could just arrange to have the product dropped off at your door that time tomorrow.

A great example of this is Apple. Everyone know’s they’re killing it right now and it’s because their stores run just like this. There are no stacks of boxes on shelves that require you to know what you buying in advance of walking in through the door. Every product is laid out on a table, ready to be touched and played with. There are sales reps, but none of them ever (in my experience) push for a sale in any way, in fact a lot of the time they’re quite happy to leave you to play. In the event that someone want to buy something, then it can happen right there next to the product, no need to head over to the sales desk.

At the very core of a system like this is branding. Everything from appearance to service needs to work in synergy. The focus here is to switch from converting sales to making customers feel welcome and comfortable with your products. That means a switch in environment, interaction and engagement. The goal is not the sale of the product, but the adoration of your customer.

Apple don’t have a consumer base. They have fans.

All in all, I think the stores of the future will be a place for brands just to touch base with their consumer. A place to say hi and make sure they’re ok. A place to show off a new range or gizmo. There’s no halting the march of dominance that online retailing has set it’s stride for and there really is no need to, but that doesn’t mean that our high streets must pass away into shadows. It just means that they need to evolve into something that online shopping isn’t… Fun.

Photo Credit to chooyutshing

is owner of Hunting Town Design, a small design house based in Manchester UK specialising in Graphic Design and Illustration. Alex is also the founder and editor of The Design Range. Find out more about Alex on his website or follow him on twitter.
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