The future of retail: so, what’s next for the British high street?


By Matt Bird, founder, The Shirt Society

Bird: flexibility is table stakes

If the retail industry wasn’t having a tough time of it before the pandemic – it certainly is now. With once household names like Marks and Spencer and John Lewis announcing store closures in the wake of Covid-19, it seems the so-called ‘decline’ of the physical High Street has been accelerated by this year’s events. 

Throw into the mix the meteoric rise of fast fashion sites. These businesses have rejected traditional ‘seasonal’ fashion ranges, creating a growing expectation of almost instantaneous collection updates. A VICE article published this year found that online-only retailer Boohoo added 772 new garments to its site in just one week. Many retailers are finding that they simply cannot compete with this speed of turnaround; many say they just don’t want to. 

All in all, it’s a turbulent time for retail businesses. So what does the future look like for our sector? I’ve worked in menswear for a number of years, and seen the industry change rapidly in a short time. When I started my subscription menswear business, The Shirt Society, it was born from speaking to customers who were, frankly, sick of the ‘old way’ of doing things. With that in mind, I learned a lot about how retailers can adapt and change the way they do things to accommodate the shifting marketing and consumer expectations. 

Being flexible with your business model is no longer an aspiration for those in the retail sector – it’s fundamental to survive and thrive in these challenging times. 

The digital age is here to stay

As is the case in so many industries, recent technological developments have opened up potential new ways of doing business for the retail sector. The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the movement towards online-only shopping: in fact, a survey conducted by The Shirt Society as lockdown lifted in the UK revealed that 56% of those asked intended not to shop in-store at all, spurred on by positive experiences of online purchasing during lockdown. 

Instead of rebelling against this, retailers should see the introduction of new technology as an opportunity. Expect to see more budget spent on the online arm of retail businesses in the near future, as brands compete to offer the best user experience online. 

When we developed The Shirt Society, we knew that the platform had to deliver the ultimate experience. The goal was to allow shoppers to make their selection and check out within just 30 seconds. That’s why we went for a custom built site. This also allows us the flexibility to add new features or change the layout with ease – crucial in the constantly evolving world of technology. 

Moreover, virtual reality is tipped to be the next ‘big thing’ in-store, to allow customers to find out about products digitally, and in real time. Engaging with this technology, as well as utilising social channels and online platforms effectively is essential in building a successful future for any retail business. 

Let’s talk 

The Shirt Society: started life as brand specialising in
collared shirts

As I mentioned before, the retail market has undergone rapid changes in recent years, with fashion retailers having perhaps the most turbulent time of all. The rise of Instagram has seen a change in the way ‘trends’ are established: what was once a hierarchical process of dictation from elite design houses is now far more collaborative. Product design is now based largely around ‘real people’ and what they want to wear. 

More casual options are now available

Because of this, opening and maintaining a dialogue between the retailer and the customer is more important than ever before. At The Shirt Society, we ensure to respond to every customer query personally, and seek feedback whenever possible. That’s all good, but being reactive to this feedback is the crucial part, I’ve found. Originally, we started life as a brand specialising only in collared shirts. When the pandemic changed all of our working habits, though, our customers told us that they needed more casual options to reflect the ‘new normal’. Because of this, The Shirt Society introduced our polos and t-shirt collections. 

Look forward to more ‘people-led’ campaigns from retail brands in the coming months and years. This could include feedback points both instore and online (think pop up chat bots asking you what you think of certain products) as retailers adapt to this need for a more constant conversation with consumers. After all, this is something that is already expected, particularly by younger shoppers.

What do you stand for? 

Caring is cool. And more fool you if you’re not onboard. Gone are the days where selling great products was enough to get you by – the future of retail means developing a robust brand identity and inviting customers to buy a lifestyle, not just a product. 

Future of retail means developing
a robust brand identity and inviting
customers to buy a lifestyle

Shoppers are demanding more from the brands they choose, perhaps because the market is more competitive than ever before. To futureproof your business, getting a strong set of brand values nailed down is essential. And then comes the hard bit – implementing them throughout your business. 

In an increasingly competitive market, expect the retail sector to be full of brands that have a nailed on sense of identity. To survive, it’s crucial that your business cuts above the noise, and offers a different take on one of these aspirational identities. Sustainability is, understandably, the ‘buzzword’ of the moment: but beware of hitching your brand’s identity to this without making a tangible commitment that you can demonstrate when challenged.  

A 2019 Forbes report found that Generation Z are willing to spend an additional 10% on products with sustainability credentials, and with this group entering the workforce this year, expect retail businesses to be clamouring to demonstrate that sustainability is a key part of their identity. The future of the retail landscape looks to be enriched by fully rounded brands and innovative practices that show a commitment to making the industry more sustainable. 

If one positive thing has come from the pandemic for retail businesses, it is that teams have been forced to become more adaptable. The increased strain of the Covid-19 crisis has forced businesses to explore new models, as well as take stock of their existing brand, identity and practices. 

Times are turbulent: and businesses must continue to keep a mindful eye on the way they do things – listening to customer feedback and not being afraid to make changes accordingly. 

It’s set to be a tough road – there’s no doubting that. But I think we’ll see retail businesses emerge that are more robust, more sustainable, and more innovative than ever before. The future of retail is – though it can be tough to believe – bright.