Why do British shoppers seem so disinclined to embrace the future of the high street, when the UK has been a global pioneer in the e-commerce technological revolution?
Around a decade ago, supermarkets introduced a revolutionary new machine that would cut queuing times, reduce staffing requirements and generally streamline the checkout process – the self-service till.
Today, the robotic reminder to take your change and that brutal bark about unexpected items in the bagging area have become a ubiquitous part of the grocery experience.
A YouGov survey of 2,100 respondents, commissioned by The BIO Agency, found that 84pc of people believed the high street as they know it will change over the next decade
Over 10 years, shopping habits have changed drastically. First customers shifted online and then to mobile, with newcomers such as Net-A-Porter putting the high-street stalwarts through their paces.
Retailers started guaranteeing next-day delivery before toying with same day delivery. Determined to keep its crown as king of the shopkeepers, profits be damned, Amazon now delivers within the hour and is trying to get products into customers’ hands within 30 minutes using drones.
The high street experience is changing, too. The line between online and in-store is blurring, with consumers mixing and matching where they browse, buy and receive their purchases.
Bank branches are dropping like flies or becoming better at incorporating digital banking into their stores, and consumers can now make payments in many stores with the touch of an iPhone using Apple Pay.
And yet unimpressed consumers seem to be making it quite clear that they don’t want any more of their purchasing activities to be marred by pesky technological advancements.
A YouGov survey of 2,100 respondents, commissioned by The BIO Agency, found that 84pc of people believed the high street as they know it will change over the next decade – but it looks like many consumers are not looking forward to this new age.
Six in 10 respondents said they would not use digital assistants to help them shop, 58pc would refuse to engage with robot sales staff, 52pc feel less than thrilled about in-store facial recognition software and – despite Amazon’s best efforts – one in two people surveyed said they would be unlikely to use on-demand drone delivery.
The survey seems particularly bizarre in the light of the UK’s legacy as a frontrunner in the technological shake-up of the retail industry, spawning household names such as Asos and Net-A-Porter back in 2000 to the more recent start-ups Made.com and Not On The High Street, the UK’s answer to Etsy.
Britons are the most frequent online shoppers in Europe with the Centre for Retail Research predicting that online retail sales in the UK will grow by 16pc to £52.25bn this year. A report published this week by Global Web Index found that two thirds of British people have bought a product online in the past month, making the UK the fifth highest adopter of internet shopping in the world.
So why do the figures suggest that British shoppers are so disinclined to embrace the future of the high street?
The demographic of the respondents goes some way to explaining this: of the 2,100 people polled in the YouGov survey, 38pc were older than 55, while a further 22pc fell between the ages of 45 and 54. Just 17pc are a decade younger, while a fifth of respondents were below the age of 35.
Younger respondents are significantly more willing to embrace new technologies on the shop floor. What’s more, the YouGov respondents are self-confessed sheep, with just 8pc saying they were always keen to try new technology products as soon as they enter the market, compared with the 26pc who preferred to let the market test the items for a while and 32pc who said they only purchase a new tech device when they really like it.
But there are two other factors at play here. The first is the realisation that with greater technological capabilities comes greater robophobia. The introduction of barcode scanners and self-serving checkouts was largely inoffensive – compared with digital assistants, robot sales staff and facial recognition software. It is no coincidence that these in-store technologies were the least appealing to the shoppers surveyed.
The second is the growing concern about privacy. And not without reason: in the past week alone, an announcement from Spotify that it would collect more information from users including photos and location data, prompted a Twitter storm of fury and account closures; and user details stolen in the Ashley Madison hack were released, threatening to expose around 1m people who could potentially cheat on their partners.
These concerns are not unfounded, but they won’t stem the technological takeover of the high street. Dear reader: it’s happening, all around us, right now.
Of course there will be teething problems: retailers are having to figure out the logistics of the returns economy that accompanies online shopping, for example, and new technologies don’t always get it right first time.
But a decade is a long time in the tech sector. After all, if we turn the clock back 10 years, Facebook had just dropped “the” from its name and was not yet available in the UK; Steve Jobs was still two years away from unveiling the first iPhone and Uber wasn’t even a twinkle in Silicon Valley’s eye.
Despite their reluctance to welcome the next phase of the high street, it’s comforting that 84pc of the YouGov respondents accepted that, in some way, the high street will look vastly different in 10 years from now. The other 16pc are in for a nasty shock.
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You can read more about our views on the future of retail on the high street in our white paper here