The growth of online retail has certainly made life easier for shoppers and opened up new channels for retailers, but big name high street stores have been steadily shutting across the UK as a result of this consumer switch. Research by PwC found that almost 2,500 stores disappeared from the UK's top 500 high street stores in 2018, resulting in over 50,000 job losses.
While some bigger retailers have effectively transitioned online to meet customer demand, smaller, local high street stores are struggling to catch up.
London-based retail-tech startup NearSt is using technology as a way to draw people back to the high street, as Nick Brackenbury, the company's CEO and cofounder, tells Techworld.
"We really got started with a central mission to get people back into high street shops, and what we realised at the start of the company is that every product and shop around the world is basically invisible to the internet, and it’s down to these things" - he points to his smartphone - "that we have in our pockets today,” he says.
The startup, which launched in 2015, recently partnered with Google in a bid to stop the downfall of local high street shops.
“What that looks like today is us connecting high street inventory directly into somewhere like Google, so that if you search for products on your phone you don’t just see online results but you actually see whether it’s available in the shop across the road from you, and really building that as a source for the whole world to use,” he explains.
Brackenbury explains that online shoppers can easily use Google search to input urgent products such as ‘light bulbs’ and receive results of nearby high street stores that have the product available up to 10-100 miles away from the customer's location.
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Often, most shoppers are likely to instantly resort to online shopping based on their being unsure if a local shop stocks the product they want. “The internet has been completely blind to that information, which is just crazy, so we’re actually making that information visible,” Brackenbury says.
“It’s such an old industry so most high street stores have got this really old point of sale systems in their inventory management systems, and they have some kind of data about what cities stock, but it’s super-inaccurate. That’s why we have to fix that today.”
How it works
“What our tech is doing is effectively plugging into the systems and automatically pulling out what’s in there and figuring out what that information is. It’s like barcodes and prices, identifying what it is and then building a trusted source that Google can use,” Brackenbury says.
Google uses the provided data for a new service called ‘see what’s in store’, which includes a live inventory of what’s in stock at stores that are partnered with NearSt. It also shows the most popular and similar products.
“The first use case is great if you already know the store name, but secondly what we’re doing is actually inputting a company directly into Google Shopping so if you just search for the name of the product nearby and the store is working with us, when fed into Google there’s a chance that the product will show at the top of search results with details of how close the store is," Brackenbury explains.
“We have shops that come to us saying they previously spent almost three months entering all the products on their website, and now they literally just fill in their details on a form and it’s done automatically.”
According to NearSt, the service particularly helps smaller high street stores in making local residents aware of their products. “We had one who was in a Holland and Barrett store trying to find something that the store didn’t have, and we had a health shop near the main road that they were unaware of.
“The person was looking to order it online and Google shows the location of the store and its availability of the exact product,” Brackenbury explains.
“There are effectively three areas where we will be having the biggest impact on the high street, so right now we’re feeding it into Google, which is a search and ad platform and will continue to be a really big part,” says Brackenbury.
“However, with things like Facebook and Instagram shopping you can very easily see how to augment a shopping ad on Instagram, so we plan to use social media in the best possible way also.”
NearSt will continue to work with Google to provide high street inventory data based on location, and will also look to provide on-demand delivery information with companies like UberEats in the future.
“If Uber had access to a 10,000 shop network with 10 million items in inventory across London for instance, you can already imagine what Google would naturally do with that. It’s basically making that journey easy for people,” Brackenbury adds.
“We look at it like it’s actually unlocking the strength of the high street, rather than making everything so focused on online. It’s making people aware that stores have these products, they’ve just been invisible because of the smartphones we spend so much time on.
“The high street is actually so convenient and it just has to be made more compatible. We see a growing demand of people wanting to find things nearby.”