Covid-19 News

How to save the high street…

Just as they will end the pandemic, technology and collaboration will save the in-store shopping experience.

At last!

The Government has given us a credible route out of lockdown.

Whilst previous plans to end lockdown have failed, this time something is different.

Despite 12 months of trials and tribulations, I see a renewed enthusiasm in people. The expectation is that this time, we will succeed.

And whilst few are under any illusion that Covid is going away, I sense a greater preparedness on the part of all stakeholders in the UK to live with it – in the same way that we have lived with other strains of Covid, usually referred to as “flu,” for many years now. Not that we have an option…

Mainstream thinking currently differs from the conspiracy theories surround chemical labs in Wuhan as the source of the new strain of Covid – a chemical weapons experiment gone horribly wrong. The experts tell us that the most likely explanation is that the virus jumped from animals to humans.

The key point here is that even if we eradicated the virus completely from the human race, which would involve huge cost and massive constraints on everyday life, the coronavirus would live quite happily in the animal population until such time as we humans let our guards down. And then it would be back with a vengeance. So, the only real solution is to manage the disease rather than to try and eradicate it. And thanks to technological innovation, made at breakneck speed, we have the option to coexist with the virus as an acceptable risk of everyday life.

Of course, one need look no further than retail for a similar example of a threat “crossing over” with dramatic impact and changing forever the way in which life goes on. The pandemic has also brought with it the well documented growth of online retail. Will it continue to dominate the retail landscape as it has? The independent Retail Think Tank… thinks not…

“The changes we have seen to consumer behaviour in 2020 were sudden and dramatic, but we remain sceptical they will result in a permanent shift. There will, of course, be people that find they prefer the new lifestyle, but we expect the majority, in the end, to return to their pre-pandemic behaviour. When it’s deemed safe to do so, there will be household bubbles bursting with savings to spend in the hospitality and leisure sectors, and some high streets and shopping centres will see a return to normal levels of footfall.”

I am sure everyone in physical retail is looking forward to reopening on 12th April. However, some of the lessons learnt form the closure at Christmas will, I hope not be lost.

For example, Amberstone operates a key holding service for clients. Having never contemplated closing stores, it has to be said that full close down protocols for many retailers were either incomplete or non-existent. I have lost count of the number of times retailers with large estates offered our personnel a large box of keys, when mothballing stores under our auspices. Often there would be easily a hundred or more keys, and not a label in sight!

And the infrastructure in many stores is based around an expectation that they stay open most of the time, if not 24/7. So, should an enforced lockdown take place, suddenly they are woefully unprepared from a remote security perspective to offer secure location status. For example, stores designed to operate 24/7 frequently did not have any security alarm systems in place. Their reasoning would be that they did not need it as, with the exception of Christmas Day, the building was always occupied by staff.

Although retailers will have to evolve their processes and protocols to deal with the possibility of future lockdowns in the light of the last 12 months, these adjustments will be nowhere near as important as the fundamental changes that need to be made to high street operations, if they are to be able to withstand the threat from online. As I have said before it is my belief that online and offline should co-exist happily. But just as technology has come to the rescue of us in the case of the vaccine, so I feel it is the only way forward for the high street…

Technological innovation can be used to make the in person shopping experience more appealing. And the high street needs to evolve to offer that which the online world cannot effectively emulate. Part of that is around human contact, but it is also about making shopping an “experience.” Using access control to give known customers easy access to store environments means that your known and trusted customers can access areas reserved for them. Facial recognition systems can spot a top customer entering the store and make sure that a personal shopper is at their side within seconds, whether the visit is pre-arranged or not. Magic mirrors and stock customised to order right there in the store are further examples of how the experience of shopping can be more interactive, enjoyable and… special.

And the combination of technology and professional guarding should be set to help revolutionise the high street too.

First of all, retailers need to understand what they want of their third party security providers. And that is based upon what they think is attainable. And that is where I hope retailers can expand their horizons…

Historically a large part of the security industry has become synonymous with paying badly trained people on minimum wage to wear a uniform and just stand in stores. That is the stereotypical security guard. And whilst for some of our competitors that demonstrates the limit of their ambition, it is not what we at Amberstone see as setting the tone for retail moving forward.

Top retailers have seen massive uplifts in profits. Now is the time to plough some of those profits into making the high street a better shopping experience. Part of that is about the safety and appeal of the high street. Untrained people in security uniforms ambling around a store are not going to add anything. They are not effective in stopping crime and they are not even reassuring to staff and customers.

What is required is a synthesis of better training for security guards, so that the industry is more professional and dynamic (which costs more) underpinned by new technology (which saves money) that facilitates the better security service being provided.

Amberstone is pursuing a strategy that will fundamentally change the way in which third party security is provided in high streets and elsewhere. That is a dynamic deployment of highly trained guards based on where risk is at any moment in time. Highly trained guards supported by technology mean that retailers can be in a situation where they effectively only pay for the security that they use.

Being able to make proper informed decision about risk, using sophisticated risk-based modelling and data collected in real time across a multiplicity of datapoints means that you do not cost in redundancy. On the contrary. You achieve economies of scale. And with the intelligent use of security systems, additional benefits can be realised by a business. Take the above examples. Why should CCTV just be used for spotting criminal activity when most activity is that of honest customers. Why not use face recognition for a better customer experience, or to track people around the store, and monitor dwell times and buying behaviours, to optimise sales for any given store at any given time of the year, month or even day.

The high street needs a wow factor! And you are not going to wow visitors to your high street if it is dirty, most store fronts are empty and look abandoned and if people are sleeping rough in every doorway. And going forward this is where I see a big opportunity for improvement in the high street environment. There needs to be effective collaboration between Local Councils, BCRPs, BIDs, organisations like the NBCS, third party security providers and the police – all working together to save the high streets.

Known offenders in an area can be identified, monitored and diversionary activity deployed. Support can be given to those who want to change, those who do not can be encouraged to go elsewhere rather than anti-social behaviour adversely affect the retail experience for the majority. We give those that need support help and eliminate those who are simply nuisances.

Issues relating to lighting maintenance, refuse, access and parking, through to shoplifting, muggings and antisocial behaviour all need to be dealt with quickly and efficiently if there is to be a future for the high street. Because why will people take a risk to shop in unpleasant, unsecure areas when they can buy from anywhere in the world from the comfort and safety of their own homes!


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