While several retailers sat last week reflecting on a disappointing Christmas trading period, 2014 promises to buzz with excitement about online, mobile and social network tools to get you to buy things. We've heard plenty about the 'death of the High Street'; its time to contemplate the future of the 'big box' out-of-town superstores in the online era. Shops are about more than shopping, their advantage remains face-to-face interaction. Retailers need to make physical stores community hubs to entice shoppers, appease a restless public, and help a stretched public sector.
New research from The RSA released this week suggests that a future retail model must make the most of the physical assets of large stores and their network of human relationships. A big supermarket typically hosts 200 staff and 10,000 customers every day. Physical space offers the opportunity for services and experiences which can't be replicated online. Most important for shops, as people live more of their lives staring at screens, is human interaction. With every self-service checkout there is a missed opportunity to build a relationship between staff and shoppers. As well as sites of consumption stores are sites of social interaction and employment with a role in combating loneliness and isolation which are increasing. Our previous research found 40% of shoppers at one large DIY store talked with other customers.
What's in store for the store of the future? We are already seeing shopping malls, retail parks and town centres add leisure and entertainment attractions, but participants in our research wanted to see a wider range of community services offered at large supermarkets. As well as existing cafes and pharmacies, large stores have the flexibility to use space in their car parks, staff rooms and back office. Two years ago Asda started letting community groups use space in store for free; since then they've been used 65,000 times. In this period of public sector austerity, we've seen libraries and youth services shut their doors and while need for support rises. Local residents suggested to us that they wanted to see their local Asda used for recruiting volunteers, expanded health services and hosting homework clubs, art shows and sports tournaments. Successful large stores will need to be fun destinations: there could be food markets by day and drive-in movies by night in the car park.
In coming to terms with the rise of online shopping, we are not rejecting the concept of physical shopping as is frequently claimed. Rather, we are using apps and websites as a new channel to browse and buy, adapting the way that we use stores. As digital platforms which make sharing product information, comparing prices and organising consumer campaigns easier, key attributes that brands desire, like trust, must be translated to new types of customer interactions.
In reconfiguring the shop floor for the mobile-connected consumer, stores will need to differentiate themselves from competition, build loyalty and secure a reputation for being a positive force in society. Realising this prize will mean creating social value for the locally-connected citizen. We call the exploration of these opportunities 'community venturing'. Early indications from Asda's Community Life programme - which the RSA evaluated for its report - suggest that the most socially valuable projects will be developed in partnership between charities, public sector agencies and business.
So why should a large national supermarket care about community venturing? It gives people a range of reasons to visit a big store and deepens relationships which can generate local insight: something commercially valuable to retailers. As Campbell's Soup is finding at their headquarters in New Jersey, engaging in community work is inspiring to employees. Perhaps most importantly, it's in the interests of a big store to grow the social economy and help local people lead fulfilling and rewarding lives. You can't have a thriving store in a failing place.
In 2013 national retailers faced public and political scrutiny over supply chain practices, pay conditions and tax payments. In 2014, High Streets will continue to adapt, and new retail businesses will show us products and producers in new ways. Several recent research reviews have suggested that with coordination among stores, High Streets can harness the power and reach of online channels. Vacancy rates will stabilise in most places; independent businesses have often been first to respond to the opportunities of contemporary consumer demands whether its coffee, bike repairs, or ethical products. Internet companies, both startups and established heavyweights, will increasingly try to develop a localised retail offer. It's up to our big national chain stores to use their local presence to beat them to it and offer us something as citizens as well as consumers.