The doom and gloom around the death of our high street has filled newspaper columns for years. There is no doubt that retail is changing, especially with online becoming more and more prominent. Whilst the high street as we know it, swamped with large chains stuffed to the brim with products you can find anywhere, is suffering, it’s apparent that this in turn is creating an opportunity for a new wave of retail. With more independent shops opening than closing in 2016, the chains are no longer providing the shopping experience consumers are looking for. In turn, this is breeding demand for a more creative, independent future. Lucy Ward, founder and visionary behind Trouva, an online marketplace for independent boutiques, discusses below how she and her team are working to bridge the gap between the online and offline worlds of retail.
With online shopping here to stay, the future of retail for all players is about encompassing the best of the online and offline worlds, focusing on the consumer experience more than ever before. As lovers of unique offline retail, Trouva was created to give independents on the high street access to technology to bridge the gap between these two worlds. We’re on a mission to regenerate offline retail by helping the smaller guys thrive online, a crucial part of embracing the future. It’s safe to say that independents have no problem sourcing beautiful, curated product ranges or creating fantastic one-of-a-kind offline experiences, but on their own they can lack the scale and technology to truly compete online. Consumers increasingly want access to distinctive products over mass produced goods but when shopping online, expect a certain service: a plethora of delivery options and a customer service team at the end of the phone.
By giving these shops the technology to manage their stock and provide a range of delivery options, as well as digital expertise we are able to make e-commerce a viable and profitable channel for them. But it’s not about solo shop wins, it’s about building a strong independent community. By bringing hundreds of different types of bricks-and-mortar shops together in one curated marketplace, we can take millions of pounds that would have gone straight into the pockets of the chains and put it back into the local economy. The most important thing for us is that without independent shops on the high street, we don’t have a business – so they come first.
People often ask why I believe in these businesses; it’s because of the dedicated and inspirational owners who run them. Since Trouva launched, I’ve witnessed a regeneration of shops offering truly innovative experiences that can’t be found anywhere else. Take Haeckels in Margate – an immersive shop experience with more than just products to sell. You walk through the door and it’s like being transported into an old apothecary, with fittings and cabinets that look like they belong in the Natural History Museum. The brand harvests natural ingredients from the Kent shore and uses them to make unisex skincare products. Started in 2012 by graphic designer, volunteer beach warden and coastal enthusiast, Dom Bridges, Haeckels is fiercely protective of the Margate coastline and plays an active part in the local community by organising beach cleans and marine conservation surveys. As well as products, Haeckels offer a range of treatments within their purpose built Thalassotherapy at the shop. A haven of coastal calm, the treatments are tailored to stimulate and intensely nourish the skin, using local and naturally sourced ingredients like seaweed and sea buckthorn. When I visited, I spent over 3 hours in the space. From my incredible deep cleansing seaweed facial to being expertly guided by the store assistant around the shop whilst learning about the fragrances, it was a retail experience like no other.
When not making excuses for weekend trips out of London to visit our boutiques, you’ll find me in my flat near Hackney Road. To help with my independent obsession I have Eastern Biological on my doorstep, a curious shop founded by East End native Alf Addis, that reflects his love of natural history. It’s a meticulously designed space to reflect the layers of the Galapagos islands, a historically significant place in the study of natural history. As well as an array of eclectic but always design-led products, Eastern Biological is also home to a resident chameleon, named Murloc. If you are lucky enough to make friends with Alf, he might even get Murloc out of his habitat to show you his up close beauty.
I’m not sure Trouva will ever replicate this type of offline experience, but over time we’ll try our best. For us, it’s never going to be about online overtaking offline, but the two working together seamlessly. We’re trying to make the online part of it work for these boutiques so that they can concentrate on doing what they do best, running their physical shops. It’s these unique and personal experiences that can never be replicated by chains, giving independent, bricks-and-mortar retailers a major advantage in the future of retail.
Whilst online is seen as the major threat for traditional retail, people don’t realise that it still only amounts to 15% of UK retail sales. Some categories have been dominated, (such as electronics and books) but others are seeing a different future – one where new technology is causing online and offline experiences to converge, where bricks-and-mortar is still crucial. These categories are about discovery; products such as homeware or fashion, where you don’t know exactly what you want until you see it, and where the “touch and feel” interaction is crucial. The future winners of the high street will be those who have an unparalleled bricks-and-mortar shopping experience but also blend this with online. Where consumers have the freedom of being able to go into a shop and try on an outfit, or experience a product, before later deciding to buy it online. Customers are already inadvertently merging the worlds of online and offline, and to survive and thrive on the high street this will need to be embraced.
I’m positive about how we can enhance the best independent businesses with technology. I can’t imagine a future without them on our high streets. We have a long way to go but I believe that there will always be a place for the creative, independent retailer and my aim is to ensure that.