Talking shop: using the media to bring ‘theatre’ to the retail experience

The reality is less dramatic, but still provides cause for concern. Jessops, Republic, Blockbuster and HMV, staples of Britain’s high streets for decades, have all called in administrators over the past two weeks. The fall of HMV has caused the most consternation amongst commentators, primarily as it is a brand which most of us associate with the halcyon days of our youth.

Yet amidst the nostalgia of #hmvmemories (which was trending in the hours after the retailer made its announcement) many have asked: ‘when did you last go to HMV?’ As they pointed out, it’s one thing being a brand which inspires emotion, but quite another to convert this goodwill into footfall. The demise of institutions like Woolworths shows that British shoppers are not sentimental with the contents of their wallets.

However, as in other sectors, the economic downturn has sorted the wheat from the chaff; the only difference being that high street retailers have a higher profile than almost any other business. Few of us could truly say that the demise of Blockbusters or Jessops came as any great surprise, but their disappearance will still be far more noticeable than that of an accountants, solicitors or even a PR agency.

Retail is undoubtedly changing, and the evolution of online shopping, coupled with a crippling double-dip recession, has created the toughest trading conditions in living memory for our ‘nation of shopkeepers’. But the internet isn’t only a threat: smart retailers are learning to use it to their advantage and attract customers into store. Argos last week announced a 2.7% increase in Christmas sales, with much of its growth fuelled by ‘click & collect’.

Meanwhile, retailers like Next and John Lewis have also bucked the trend. These businesses succeeded where HMV failed over Christmas, by converting public affection for their brands into traffic in-store (and online) and cash at the tills. Successful communications can (and did) help them do this. Shopping remains one of the UK’s favourite pastimes, and if high street retailers are to succeed in the internet age, they must convince customers that online shopping cannot replicate the in-store experience. PR is one of the most effective (and cost-effective) ways of doing this.

Brands2Life successfully did this for John Lewis on a number of occasions before Christmas, with column inches successfully translating into sales. One such occasion involved a masterclass on home fragrance, which brought journalists into the retailer’s Peter Jones store for a glimpse of how high-end scents can transform a home and complement its décor.  The resulting coverage not only name-checked and pictured the store – it prompted a significant increase in sales of candles and diffusers the following week.

So while consumers may momentarily mourn the ghosts of retailers past, smart businesses have already turned their minds to the customer base they left behind. For every Jessops, Woolworths and HMV there is a Next or Robert Dyas waiting to take advantage. Bringing the ‘theatre’ of the shopping experience to life in the pages of a newspaper or glossy magazine may well be single most effective way for them to do so.

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