Digitalising the high street for good

Digitalising the high street for good

Dr Jackie Mulligan, CEO of ShopAppy is on a mission to save the high street with a platform that helps customers shop locally. We sat down with her to find out more about the role digitalisation could play in high street sustainability, and why big and small retailers need to work together to make it happen.

How has lockdown catalysed the digitalisation of our high streets?

When panic buying cleared out the supermarkets, a lot of people suddenly relied on their corner shop. There was undoubtedly frustration at the absence of online options as a result. More businesses have gone online in their own right now, and that was long overdue. People have much more choice as to where they spend their money, and I’m really pleased to see local stores have gained back a bit of that market share by going online.

Lockdown has also helped businesses continue to serve vulnerable people in their community. There were plenty of people before the pandemic who couldn’t access their own high streets because they weren’t online, and now there’s better local accessibility for people with disabilities or mental health issues, or just a lack of time, when before lockdown these people were unable to access their local businesses before this in such an easy way.

How can digitalisation help create a more environmentally friendly version of the high street?

High streets are environmentally friendly, they always have been. Town centres were the original carbon neutral way of doing things. You walked down to a high street, bought your items and walked home. Then over the course of a few years we normalised this idea of ordering something online, and having it wrapped in ridiculous amounts of packaging and driven miles to come to us the next day or in a matter of hours.

I think online needs to be less about getting deliveries to your home and more about getting people out onto the high street with an intention to buy something. Nobody wants to live in a world of hermits where we sit at home and consume. We all have a human need to interact as we discovered in lockdown when our real interactions were so severely curtailed. Online should be about influencing, showing, pulling people together, because that’s really a very positive thing you can do for the community.

With so much stock being hoarded in eCommerce warehouses, people have started to order online as a default because all too often, bricks and mortar stores don’t have what they’re looking for. I had that experience. If you’ve researched a product and then go to the bother to visit a shop, you definitely want that product in that store. It makes things complicated for retailers, but it’s what customers want. To be told as a customer to go and order online when you’re standing in the store feels very counterproductive. On top of that, if people sample a real product in person, they are less likely to return items, which has to be a good thing both commercially and environmentally.

It’s clear that independent retailers are carrying the torch when it comes to sustainability, I think part of that is because they have much more agility. How can larger retailers start to follow suit?

They need to work more collaboratively with the smaller retailers. I think this idea that everybody has to fight for their market share is absolute rubbish. Retailers would be much stronger if they worked together. That’s what tries to champion.

There are so many stories out there about superstores undercutting local businesses on their specialty products. It’s completely unethical and I think people are getting fed up with it, because nobody wants a high street full of large businesses. For the big business it’s better for them if they have vibrant small businesses around them, and for small businesses it’s good to have bigger chains because that will pull people in as well. We need that collaboration, and I think the driving force should be figuring out a way to serve the needs of the community in all of its diversity and complexity together rather than as competitors all the time.

You’ve spoken before about optimistic bias when deciding what trends we focus on. What do you think are some uncomfortable truths which retailers haven’t fully faced up to yet?

The sustainable long term of the high street is under threat. Many high street businesses set up because they want to be in charge of their own destiny, which is really laudable and positive, but whether or not they like it their future is aligned with the businesses around them. If businesses around them fail, their business starts to be called into question. Now more than ever, big and small retailers need to be working together instead of against one another.