When you're a national institution with the heritage and prestige of Marks and Spencer, the idea of becoming a retail dinosaur has to hurt. Depending on which pundit or analyst you listen to, M&S is either having a huge identity issue (a retail version of a mid-life crisis, preparing to buy a Porsche) or simply a high-profile victim of the success of ecommerce and its one-man mission to decimate the high street. Either way, M&S is caught between a rock and a hard place right now. Despite relaunching its £150m website in February, adding more video and richer content to the site, online sales had slumped by 8% by July, failing to fill the massive vacuum caused by an ageing customer base and 12 consecutive quarters of falling clothing sales.
Of course, before the blue rinse brigade take to the streets, it's not just M&S suffering right now. Many high street retailers, including Argos are learning that the challenge of ecommerce does not necessarily equate to an opportunity if your value proposition is built upon the brand's in-store presence and 'safe' range of products and services. While M&S has brought in celebrities to endorse its clothing ranges and turned to popular culture to rejuvenate their marketing and advertisement campaigns, its problem lies in their inability to attract younger shoppers in to their stores and keep them their long enough to see beyond the preconceptions about the brand.
As more and more shoppers go online, fuelled by always-connected mobile devices, one lesson M&S may look to learn quickly is the role of in-store technology to fuse the online and offline worlds. In simple terms, M&S should looks to what Burberry's enigmatic former CEO Angela Ahrends did, and Argos have done in an effective, yet understated high street way - turn on in-store technology to attract consumers who live their lives with their device by their side. Burberry allowed customers to use tablets to match potential outfits in store, while at the same time capturing details to deliver a personalized experience. Argos has also used tablet devices in retail stores to replace its legendary but somewhat archaic physical catalogue. Of course customers are show rooming while they are out on the high street, comparing brands with online offerings due to the potential savings that can be made. Brand loyalty is on its last legs and consumers have freedom to pick and choose from a global market.
Ecommerce may well have killed brick and mortar stories, but technology offers the perfect opportunity to fuel a resurgence. A recent Netbiscuits global survey of 6,000 consumers found that 16% of mobile web shoppers are shopping on the mobile web while physically out looking around stores. More importantly, a majority (63%) of survey respondents said that they would be happy to receive offers and information on their device related to the shop (or even the shop aisle) that they were in. In true style of 'The Matrix,' more people said that they agreed that would be happy with personalized adverts as they entered or walked round a store (42% said yes, compared to 29% for no).
Of course, brands must first entice customers into the store and this is where technology dependency can be exploited. In addition to tablets to boost the in-store experience, brands should be thinking of how tactics, such as in-store charging stations can lure in consumers with power-hungry devices. In return for location data, devices can be charged, allowing retailers to continually push offers and alerts out to mobile devices. Of course, this is just one method, but the principle of blurring the lines between mobile and physical stores can be done effectively with technology is a prevalent one. NFC and the arrival of Apple Pay is another great example of this in practice. In-store payment via a mobile device is the perfect fusion of digital and real world that then opens up the lines of communication between the retailer and consumer to have personalized future engagements.
What this does mean is that retailers must become ever adept at creating mobile experiences that are seamless and simply work for a very demanding visitor with a lot of retail choices. If I'm going to invest in visiting M&S in store, I want my online experience with them to flow naturally with the in-store engagement. Retailers must get smarter at knowing who their customers are and that means which devices they are using and what context they are being used in.
Customers own the experience, not brands, and they are becoming increasingly demanding. In the People's Web Report, 96% of consumers told us they want more from the mobile web and this is because they are doing more and relying on it for their everyday lives. Not all brands can afford an M&S-style £150m makeover, but understanding, for example, that the majority of your users browse from 2G connections, on small screen devices and between 11am and 3pm on a Saturday can be very hugely useful when developing mobile web content and campaigns.
For a variety of reasons, it remains to be seen whether or not M&S can remain relevant on the British high street, but it does seem that technology - the greatest threat to the physical retailer's existence may also be its greatest ally in achieving a stay of execution.