The U.K. has always led the way when it comes to online shopping. According to communications watchdog Ofcom, U.K. consumers consistently top the global league table when it comes to internet spending.
It is easy to see then why traditional High Street retailers have felt increasing pressure, and we were pleasantly surprised when new research carried out by Accenture Retail showed that the tide could be turning in favor of a maturing and more balanced distribution of consumer spending.
We interviewed 750 U.K. adults in an online survey at the end of last year and found 13 percent said they were planning to increase the amount they spend in-store. This might not seem a lot, but it is actually a doubling of the number of shoppers who declared the same intention in a similar survey we conducted only two years ago.
Changing retail fortunes
This is a significant change in direction of the fortunes of retailers with bricks-and-mortar stores that have felt under siege in the wake of growing online sales. It's also a significant opportunity for them to begin to redress the imbalance between online sales that outstrip store sales — even if they have a presence in both channels.
However, the survey's results don't mean that retailers should just sit back and expect consumers to change habits established over more than a decade. Online shopping growth has been made possible by increased access to faster, broadband-enabled internet connections. The landscape looks set to become even more challenging when you add smartphones, tablets and speedier 4G mobile connections into the mix.
It is in this context that the consumers we surveyed also said that only retailers actively improving the in-store experience would attract any extra spend.
Asked to name the things retailers need to do to improve the overall shopping experience, shoppers ranked making the in-store shopping experience highly important – at 35 percent – compared to just 19 percent who cited improving online shopping. At the same time, 45 percent of respondents said retailers have made it easier for them to use a mobile device to complete a purchase, up from 30 percent who cited that in Accenture's 2012 survey.
So it is only those retailers that make the effort of going into a store worthwhile for their customers that will successfully capitalise on any opportunity to grow brick-and-mortar sales. But this will be easier said than done, when the ultra-connected consumer demands a more joined-up retail experience. Our research, for instance, found UK shoppers are using "click and collect" services more often — that is, buying an item online and then traveling to a store to collect it.
Integrated, seamless shopping
So what can retailers do to capture any extra store-based spending? The answers lie in the fact that consumers do not differentiate between a retailer's store and their online presence. More than three quarters (77 percent) said they now expect in-store and online pricing to be the same. And nearly 60 percent cited consistent promotional expectations too. Consumer interest in accessing in-store services via their mobile devices also increased between 2012 and 2013.
Making it possible to check product availability and also buy online before traveling to a store emerged as the service 35 percent said would most improve the shopping experience. Furthermore, three in four respondents (74 percent) said they would either travel to a store to make a purchase or buy online if retailers offered real-time information on product availability.
This is why we believe it will only be those retailers that bring the transparency and convenience of shopping online into the store by consistently embracing the very same digital communications and mobility adopted by their customers that stand to turn the threat of online into a truly competitive opportunity.
Helen Merriott is managing director of Accenture's U.K. retail practice. Follow the practice at @AccentureRetail