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Retail Revival: From High Street to Online

Zara, a successful store in the bricks-and-mortar store in the digital age?

Some (notably me) love the idea of shopping. I often head to Oxford Street with hope in my heart that I’ll find exactly what I am looking for, in the right size, the right colour and the right style. Is that too much to ask? But reality slowly starts to set in as I fight through the crowds, and eventually I leave disappointed as I fail to find that perfect item.

From clothes to shoes, there’s no guarantee that on your expedition you’ll return with what you were looking for. To avoid this frustration, more customers are turning to the comfort of their sofa and laptop for a less strenuous and more fulfilling session of retail browsing. Most online retailers even offer the same benefits in the digital landscape as they would in the real world: free returns and delivery, sales and discounts. That’s in addition to the added benefit of more colours and sizes, as you’re no longer shopping at an individual store, but an entire (online) warehouse.

Tough trading on the high street and changes in purchasing behaviour have seen established retailers like BHS, Ben Sherman and La Senza fall into administration. Now that shopping is available at our fingertips, fewer customers are putting themselves through the hassle of physically visiting the high street. With the Centre for Retail Research forecasting that the total number of physical stores in the UK will fall by 22 percent, from 281,930 today to 220,000 in 2018, retailers will have to work much harder to get customers to see the value of a bricks-and-mortar store in the digital age.

During my young years, shopping with friends was a social outing and a past time. It was a fun activity. As we get older our lives become busier with our careers, commitments and family. Shopping, once a fun activity, has become a chore. Buying online is simply convenient and quick. However, retailers are strategic as to who they want to be: the best high street retailer or the best online retailer. Very few are successful at doing both.

The ASOS website.

ASOS: Virtual window shopping, under one roof

ASOS grabbed a giant gap in the market in 2000. With an easy-to-navigate website, great photography and catwalk videos, they’ve quickly grown to become UK’s largest fashion and beauty online retailer. Their unique selling proposition (USP) is selling over 850 brands on their site, as well as their own ASOS brand product, allowing customers to compare merchandise from competing brands. In a sense you could virtually window shop under one roof.

The ASOS site is cleverly designed in response to how a savvy customer shops. It allows you to:

  1. Get a good look at what you’re buying through detailed photography

  2. See how it might fit (if you’re the same size as an ASOS model)

  3. Browse through the outfit combinations suggested by ASOS and/or by other shoppers

  4. Compare brands before you buy

ASOS’ approach is expansive, covering various brands, advice and ease of buying and their custom guarantees returning shoppers. However, some brands refuse to sell their merchandise via ASOS, perhaps because they think their own site is just as successful, or because they would rather focus on bringing customers into their own store.

A Typical Zara store interior © EuroJohn

Zara: Success on High Street

Zara is an example of an anti-ASOS brand. They are one of the most profitable high street stores in Europe. Location is a key driver of Zara’s success. Zara’s stores are generally found on a busy high street or in a mall, where there is more to do than just shop, such as having a bite to eat or catching a movie. Customers have the choice of ‘making a day of it.’ Being in a retail zone still allows customers to compare similar products before they buy. This might be a little more work than online browsing, but customers have the added benefit of ‘trying before buying,’ (a luxury not offered by our laptops), and being able to have the item immediately.

Zara’s simple, monochromatic interior palette allows their merchandise to be the main focus, with communication reduced to catwalk footage, campaign photography and punchy price messaging. Instead of advertising, they instead use their windows to feature seasonal trends that draw customers.

Zara sells online, but the site’s functionality is rudimentary compared to ASOS’ site. Images of merchandise are art directed like a fashion shoot, but there are no catwalks, no direct suggestions from regular shoppers of how to pair the product with items, no information about what size the model is wearing, no clothes care instructions. The site offers customers very minimal information; to know more you would have to go the store. Cunning.

Zara has become a retail leader with its focus on fast fashion, by taking a style from the catwalk and making it affordable and attainable for the everyday consumer, churning out new styles every three weeks. Twice a week, a store manager will send an order to Zara’s corporate headquarters, based on the sales data for the store and evidence from shoppers about what they like and don’t like.

The key to retail success: Constant evolution

ASOS focuses on following trends and creating them; they tap into what a consumer wants and needs and uses that information to sell merchandise. They take the data received through their social media sites, sales and their website to develop new experiences to engage and connect with their customers.

ASOS behaves like a brand, continuously evolving to stay afloat in the high street world of fashion, growing and developing with its customers. Zara has continued with the same business model it began with, and 30 years later, it continues to be a success. As long as its customers don’t want more than what they offer; otherwise, they might turn to the Internet to window shop, virtually.

Shuma Talbot has been practicing design since 2003. Her career has taken her from the UK to Dubai to Australia, and some incredible places along the way. She believes good design is a bright idea, beautifully crafted. Contact her at shuma_talbot@gensler.com.