Death of the high street? It wasn’t that long ago that Mary Portas, the BRC and many other industry commentators were warning us about the death of the high street. We were starting to believe that as customers, we’d only ever shop online and that physical stores would no longer interest us.

Stores of the future

Then, loudly and with much PR, retailers launched their ‘stores of the future’, a defensive move against the rise of eComm. Retailers jockeyed for position… who would be seen as the business with the secret sauce to keep their high street presence relevant?

Several retailers offered us exciting glimpses into the future. Apple set the gold standard with their decentralised and fully digitised stores. Tesco Watford promised us not just a supermarket, but a retail and leisure destination. Domino’s opened Pizza Theatres where we engaged with their team as we watched them prepare our pizzas and we told them what we thought by writing our recommendations on chalkboards.

The quest for a seamless omnichannel experience

In the background to all of this, everyone was talking and writing about retailers providing us with the ultimate in service: the illusive ‘seamless omnichannel experience’. This experience would finally give us true choice, allowing us to interact with retailers our way, on our terms, and through the channels we want to use. We were excited that retailers were responding to our rapidly changing needs and came to expect them to fit around our busy lifestyles, rather than the other way around.

Whilst this still remains the Holy Grail for many retailers, some have made great strides towards this seamlessness. Think John Lewis and their comprehensive cross-channel proposition. Argos and their new digitised stores. Burberry with their heavy adoption of in-store tech. And of course, Starbucks with their in-store digital network that has turned loyal customers into uber-loyal customers. They have all set a new bar that other retailers now have no choice but to reach if they want to keep (or win back) our loyalty.

Let’s get phygital

More recently, a new word has hit the pages of the retail dictionary: phygital. As you might guess, this is where the physical and digital are blended together to give us the shopping experience we all want. Mary Portas, it appears that the high street is not dead after all…

According to a recent survey, 60% of customers state that a seamless experience is their main priority when it comes to the retailers they choose. And all around us we see retailers going to great lengths to merge the physical and digital experience into one. You only need to walk through the flagship stores of London to see this in action.

Digital signage now pervades, we’re seeing increasing use of RFID and virtual mannequins are gathering popularity. Look at Selfridges who have phygitally reinvigorated their denim shopping experience: the Jeanius Bar supplements their huge range of in-store denim with touchscreen collections. They’ve brought the clothes to life for us with suggestions of how to wear them and then printing personal wish lists for us to take away and give to our loved ones for the next time they want to buy us a present. Topshop’s virtual reality catwalk experience had us donning VR headsets to see what it was like to strut down the catwalk at London Fashion Week in 360 degrees. And we did that from the comfort of their stores.

Despite all the hype, we still see stores closing at an alarming high rate at a macro level across the UK. However, us customers are coming back to the high street. It’s not because we need to, but because we want to. And we’re coming back in our droves. So much so that we’ve drawn pure eComm players to meet us there.

Most interesting is Amazon and their plans for a physical store in London after opening some in the US. The store will use their incredible amount of data to stock books based on customer ratings, pre-orders and popularity among reader recommendation sites. They’re seeing the benefits of fully capitalising on the showrooming advantages of a physical space.

From digical to phygital

The concept of phygital is not new. But what is interesting is how we now see phygital being applied in retail. The focus has certainly shifted from bringing digital into the physical store. Instead, we’re seeing an increasing trend toward bringing the immersive, engaging and sensory experience of in-store shopping into the digital world. We’ve moved from ‘digical’ to ‘phygital’.

Broadcasting has been widely adopted by fashion brands such as Topshop, Burberry and Hunter for some time, and we are beginning to see mainstream applications of virtual reality. We’re seeing retailers like Tesco looking at ways to use Facebook’s Oculus Rift virtual reality technology to enable a virtual browsing experience. River Island has teamed up with Google Cardboard to build an engaging and immersive experience that will introduce us to their new Design Forum collection. Broadcasting and virtual reality are both impactful ways to showroom the physical through digital. We’re likely to see these formats becoming more and more widespread over the coming months.

With the cost of virtual reality tech lowering rapidly and the mass adoption of online browsing, phygital experiences in the home will become more and more commonplace. We are becoming more receptive and open to these experiences, so it won’t be long before we expect them from our retailers. In the same way that we expected seamless omnichannel experiences from them…the dial is turning fast.