Retail is failing because it’s crap

Mitchel White
November 28, 2018

Traditional retailers have been struggling for years on the high street, with rising rents and  dwindling footfall.

Big names are dropping like flies.

Big failures in 2018 included House of Fraser, Poundworld, Maplin & Toys ‘R’ Us with more warning they’ll be closing their doors if rescue deals can’t be arranged.

Why is traditional retail failing?

  • Rising costs:  we won’t get into Brexit here but the pound isn’t doing very well for obvious reasons… which means sourcing goods and products abroad has increased costs. Add this year’s rises in the legal minimum wage and business rates, and traditional retailers with lots of employees are feeling the squeeze.
  • Online rivals:  pretty much everyone shops online now (even your nan). Online non-food sales rose by 7.5% in the past year and the online shopping trend is showing no signs of slowing down. Why would it? However, profits are being hit as retailers try to keep up by investing in new technology.
  • High streets are dying:  as consumer buying behaviour changes and costs increase, high streets lose shops. As more shops are lost less people take the time to head into town. It’s a downward spiral and nobody seems to have the answer on how to “save the high street.”
  • We’ve got enough stuff:  we’re running out of space to store all the stuff we’ve been buying over the years. As the mass of consumer buying power swings towards Millennials  (who are much more likely to rent) – space is at a premium, which might be one reason why spending on women’s clothing fell last year. There’s only so much wardrobe space left…

But… they’re really failing because the customer experience is shit…

Besides all the factors we’ve touched on, the biggest thing nobody mentions when they talk about why retail is faring so badly is the fact that the traditional retail shopping experience is shit.

Retailers got complacent and didn’t bother innovating.

In a free market economy those who innovate and reinvest profits to grow are rewarded and those that don’t, fail.

It’s that simple.

The truth is that a lot of the businesses that failed were poorly managed and didn’t react quickly enough to changing customer needs.

The store experience alone is shocking in some of the failed businesses – I mean, some House of Fraser stores looked like your nan’s lounge before she got fully laminated (her floor, not her!).

And let’s not get started on some of the websites of the big traditional retailers. Shocking doesn’t even come close.

Online retail is going the same way…

In recent years retailers seem to have cottoned onto the idea that people might want to shop online. Yay. Finally!

But even now they don’t seem to get it.

You can’t be Amazon.

The reason why we all shop on Amazon (despite them being a bit of an awful company ethics wise) is for price and convenience. So why are retailers trying to beat Amazon at their own game? It’s impossible to compete on price when you have higher overheads and less sophisticated technology and automation.

Online retailers and ecommerce stores focus too much on discounting. We all know the ones who have a sale on every week, so we come to expect a sale and wait before we buy when it’s cheaper – harming sales and profits.

Despite some retailers being pretty rubbish at running physical and ecommerce stores some are defying the odds and growing at phenomenal rates.

But why? What do they have in common?

They’ve innovated, they’ve spotted a niche or found a way to market that addresses a customer need rather than focusing on discounting and promotions.

Innovation in product, customer experience or delivery is perhaps the biggest way to stop online retail going the same way that traditional retail has gone.

There are lots of examples of brands doing well in ecommerce, here’s a couple we love and some quick reasons why we think they’re doing well and what you can learn from them:


Started in a bedroom by a 19 year old in 2012, Gymshark turned over £100m in 2018… not a bad ecommerce success story and an example of how to grow a retail business properly.

So why are Gymshark on of our favourite ecommerce brands?

  • They noticed a gap in the market for affordable, stylish outfits for the gym.
  • They led the way in influencer marketing, setting a standard in the way to create an engaged and loyal set of fans by working with influencers.
  • They combine offline and online perfectly – they engage local audiences with pop up store events in big cities around the world. Driving brand loyalty, engagement and sales whilst maintaining a low cost base.
  • They’ve created fans of the brand who have bought into the Gymshark story. By sharing “behind the scenes” posts from the CEO & Founder, people have followed the journey Gymshark have been on and feel part of the success of the brand.

Warby Parker

Wondering who Warby Parker are? Their the online eyewear brand valued at $1.2 Billion 5 years since starting out.

How did Warby Parker grow so quickly and what can we learn?

  • They put a social cause at their core, every time they sell a pair of glasses they give a pair to someone who needs them. Appealing to a socially conscious audience with a buy one, give one business model. Word of mouth is one of the biggest factors impacting growth as a startup ecommerce brand.
  • They focused on delighting their customers. In ecommerce sales the biggest marketing expense is often winning new customers so when you actually get a customer it’s best to keep them and increase their lifetime value. At every stage the Warby Parker buying, delivery and product experience is frictionless.
  • Creating a personalised digital experience – their website offers a more personal approach with quizzes and helpful content focused on providing real value to potential customers before they buy – reducing the high returns rates that plague online retailers.

What do these two online retail brands have in common?

They focus on customer experience.

They appeal to similar demographics.

They have a really simple brand proposition

They’ve created a loyal customer base.

They’re smashing it.

Our biggest tips for ecommerce brands not wanting to go the same way as their offline counterparts
  • Have a cause: we’re strong believers that the brands that thrive in future will be those with a cause, whether that’s by adopting a Buy One, Give One model like Warby Parker, or by producing a product that has a positive impact on the environment. The most important thing here is to embed that cause at the heart of your business not just as a marketing CSR ploy. Social cause marketing  is one way to differentiate your business from the competition and build brand loyalty.
  • Focus on customer experience: despite Brexit and all the other shit going on in the world, the one thing you have control over is your customer experience. Make it the best it can be. Consumers demand more. They demand a website that loads quickly, a seamless buying experience and quick delivery.
  • Always innovate:  if there is one thing to learn from the failure of traditional retailers is that you need to constantly innovate. It sounds cliche but you really do need to disrupt your market or you will be disrupted. Competition in most online retail niches is increasing and a competitor could set up a site that goes into direct competition with you tomorrow. Make sure you’re ahead of the game.
  • Know your customer and never forget who they are: stay in touch with your customers and constantly get feedback to improve. The fastest way to fail in retail is to not listen to your customers. If something is going wrong, get it fixed and often the easiest way to innovate is to listen to what your customers want.

It’s a tough world in retail at the moment but for those who are ready to innovate there is an opportunity for the taking.

Don’t ever stand still.

Don’t be a Blockbuster. They could have been Netflix.

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