Harnessing digital technology

In an age where people can easily shop on their phones from the comfort of their sofa, retailers have harnessed digital disruption for their own ends. They use digital technology, such as social media, to improve customer engagement and build brand loyalty. The aim is to draw people to physical shops for the experience they – and the leisure facilities that now complement them – offer, rather than purely the transaction.

John Lewis is one brand that has invested heavily in connecting its online presence with its physical stores.  At the other end of the scale, high-end cycling brand Rapha started with a small shop and built a brand, and a community, around its online platform. This is now complemented by a wider store offer that enhances shoppers’ experience with events and other activities

Retailers today use technology to build a sophisticated understanding of how different customers behave, and to respond accordingly. For example, media screening is capable of working out which demographic passing shoppers belong to and targeting the advertising displayed to them accordingly. 

Could automated number plate recognition do something similar for drivers on our roads? Could messages – already timelier and more useful than ever before thanks to new smart motorway signage – be improved by targeting specific audiences? As autonomous and connected vehicles arrive on our roads, there might be opportunities to segment messages. For example, lorry drivers could receive in-cab alerts about high winds, while a family driving to a holiday park could receive a warning that an upcoming motorway service area is very busy.

Integrating the journey

It is in the interest of retailers to ensure that drivers enjoy a smooth journey to their destinations. After all, if the traffic is a nightmare you may not bother visiting that shopping destination next time – going somewhere else instead or shopping online. Some elements of the journey are within retailers’ control. For example, while the sector generally does an excellent job of signage, it could be missing a trick by not highlighting the presence of electric vehicle (EV) charge points. These will become increasingly important as the proportion of EVs grows and drivers seek out opportunities for destination charging. It could be as simple as sign-posting the location of charge points.

Elsewhere, journeys are beyond the control of traditional retail developers. Yet with local authorities increasingly building retail as part of mixed-use regeneration through their own development agencies and partners, there is more opportunity than ever to ensure customer experience is joined up across roads and retail. Could this open up more opportunities to better serve customers? Maybe, for example, integrated information systems could help people find uncongested routes to retail and leisure destinations, and to pre-book parking spaces and pay for them?

Ensuring the best experience for customers (of both roads and retail) may even soon require a fundamental rethink of some established principles. The advent of autonomous vehicles – both private cars and goods vehicles delivering to stores – could change the space requirements for both road and retail. It could be possible, for example, to reduce the space required for access roads, service yards or customer parking ¬– using the space freed up to create the public realm that people increasingly value in retail and leisure destinations, including wellbeing and green space.

With new possibilities opening up all the time, the precise future for roads and retail may not yet be certain – but one thing is for sure: the customer should be at the centre.