The real revolution in social won’t be online

One of the 24 illustrations by Eric Ravilious for Highstreet published in 1938.

We are undertaking a major project in Saatchi & Saatchi at the moment on the future of the high street. While this is a subject that has been repeatedly dug over in the past couple of years as the high street has imploded in the UK, we have chosen to look at a very specific audience. Rather than turning to the retail experts, household shoppers, urban planners or politicians we have focused instead on young people aged 16 to 29. If the high street has a future then this is it.

We have unearthed a powerful story about both the failure of the high street to meet the needs of this group and profound optimism for its future from these digital natives.
There are three fundamental things that young people are asking of the high street – social connection, local pride and opportunities for entrepreneurialism. And I have been giving a bit of thought to the first of these.

What gets me excited about the desire for social connection is when you move beyond urban planning solutions (seemingly always provided through copious seating and skateboard parks) and inside the retailers. The high street was always brilliant at ‘social’ as we now seem to call it – the authentic and engaged voice of the brand or business – after all this really was a place where everyone knew your name. But the truth is that modern retail has destroyed the sociability of the high street replacing it with something that is far easier to control from head office – service.
Now I am not arguing for one minute that service isn’t important in retailing along with the other elements of the retail trinity – value and quality. But that service has squeezed out sociability and that without it the high street really doesn’t have a hope since it can’t do value, range, or many aspects of quality or service as well as online or out of town. Nowadays a trip to your so called Sainsbury’s Local or Tesco Express can take place with absolutely no human connection whatsoever as you choose and pay for your goods on your own. And the fact is no one minds because the value of the social connection that preceded it was so low automated check out didn’t really make things any worse.

Of course there is a place where brands are tentatively experimenting with being more sociable, in social media. Of course this is proving profoundly difficult precisely because sociability runs counter to the instincts of big brands and businesses. However, I believe that the real revolution in social will come not when brands are sociable in social media (important though this is) but when they crack sociability face to face and specifically in their high street presence.

And one of the exciting things about this is that its can’t be solved with more data. In many respects the key to great service online, out of town or on the high street is great data but it is bugger all help in improving sociability – that is a deeply human skill that algorithms will never be any good as the principal requirement is humanity.
A rapid injection of sociability is not a panacea to solve the problem of our dying high street but an important part of the solution that differentiates this essential part of our daily lives from the retail alternatives.

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14 Replies to “The real revolution in social won’t be online”

  1. Interesting – looking forward to the full report if you decide to make it publicly available? I think there’s major benefits to be had for any local authority brave enough to rethink their high street to encourage fledgling businesses (vast reductions in business rates, stipends to young entrepreneurs). I returned home to St Albans (not exactly a poor place) over Christmas and was pretty shocked to see almost half the high street taken over by pound shops and low-end, temporary establishments with little to recommend them. Whether it’s the transient effects of the recession or the result of a longer-term decline in the viability of bricks and mortar retail, it’s clear to me that majorly new thinking is needed.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve never understood why, for example, a brand like HMV hasn’t tried to make their stores more social spaces. They can’t compete with Amazon’s algorithms and long tail in bricks and mortar – but they can certainly capitalise on the passion for music (and/or film)their staff and customers have.
    There are potentially benefits here for all kinds of retailers but for those like HMV who operate in categories that people really want to talk about and where friendly knowledge, expertise, debate and recommendation are highly valued, it just seems so bloody obvious.

  3. Two new observations via Magnus Djaba – my office mate.
    1) How many brands are desperately trying to get young people to engage with them online and spend time with the brand. And yet those very same young people are in their stores every week. Duh!
    2) If spotify can sell ad space to brands because people spend loads of time listening to music on the platform, how come this has escaped retailers as a revenue stream.

  4. I thought I saw the High Street of the future when I visited London last summer and went to Lauriston Road behind Victoria Park – greengrocers, butchers and bakers staffed by tattooed hipster graduates who ten years ago would have been working in ad agencies but who are now happier selling an organic scotch egg for a fiver in some bizarre desire to reinvent the values of the 1950s.
    If I could stop being such a cynical arse I would have to admit it was inspiring to see an attempt to recreate the high street as a place of simple community values and a belief in basic quality – something which those nasties from places like Tesco have tried to destroy in their attempt to ‘Everyday Low Price’ clusterbomb the traditional British High Street.

  5. Peter, actually there are great examples like hat all over London and particularly in the east. The truth is that as with so many things London is faring rather better than the rest of the uk. It never got so cloney and it isn’t boarded up to the extent of much of Britain. Loads of lessons from London for high streets every where like the power of street markets to revitalise the high street like Columbia road and broadway market both in hackney. But the truth is much of the success of the London high street is down to the youthfulness, relative wealth and critically ethnic diversity of the capital. Not easy to replicate.

  6. Welcome to the Experience Economy started out as an HBR article in 1998, but the experiences that followed were largely superficial.
    While Apple Stores may have cracked it, I think that’s helped by the inherently social nature of their products and their pre-existing high margins. If you don’t have both of those, it’s going to be tough to do anything meaningful. Either the composition of the High St will have to change or the retailers will have to work in aggregate and make the street rather than their own stores the social focus.

  7. Great post R and great comments. (Particulalry like the one from Christian Louboutin and your mum).
    The shops I despise the most and are the motherships of everything you have said here are Boots and WH Smiths. I have managed to purchase items in both of these stores recently without interacting with a single member of staff. Self-tills without someone around to help, no one to welcome you when walk through the door. No staff walking around and being available for help or advice. A true contactless society. How’s that for the sociability of brands?

  8. Couldn’t agree more.
    I think the ‘real world’ retail channel needs to be re-examined from the bottom up in terms of it’s role within a business. It shouldn’t and can no longer be another place to sell. Convenience and price can always be bettered online.
    Therefore the ‘shop’ must be a social place as after all it is the ONLY place a consumer can actually see, talk to, smell, touch, taste the brand in real life. Why aren’t retailers grabbing this thought and running with it? Be your brand. Shops used to be like this when indeed everyone did know your name, and Branson had it with Virgin Records on Oxford Street (Bean bags, coffee, headphones, listening booths, no purchase necessary).
    I think we will see this environment go full circle as brands learn that just selling great products isn’t enough. To really be important in someone’s life they have to offer more, be truly social not snidely social.
    Look forward to seeing your conclusions and report etc.

  9. Go have a look at Daunt Books, they seem to have cracked social space.
    Even better -and much more fun- go to any Italian ‘high street’, and see what we’re missing.
    By way of contrast, and as if to prove your point Richard, starbucks set themselves up as social space and then completely de-socialise it via their obsession with service.

  10. Would have to agree completely about the lack of interaction in the local Sainsburys and Tesco. The only communication is with a till that as Rory Sutherland pointed out, spits out the most absurd words ‘unexpected item in the bagging area’.
    Starbucks have tried to personalise the coffee buying experience by writing our name on the coffee cup. I was handed a coffee cup saying John without a look in my direction or a smile from a hurried and stressed looking barista. I got the most interaction with a stranger by telling John he had got Sophie. At least it made us laugh. Oh well…they are trying at least.

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