In the Rush to Digital Commerce, Let’s Not Lose Sight of Traditional Retail’s Best Bits

Classed as essen­tial dur­ing lock­down, many of our inde­pen­dent shops remained open, becom­ing the only retail expe­ri­ence avail­able to most of us. Data from Bar­clay­card, which tracks more than half of all card trans­ac­tions, showed spend­ing at local inde­pen­dent gro­cers in the UK grew by 30.5% between the last week pre-lock­down and the first week of lockdown.

But why did they prove so pop­u­lar? Local stores are eas­i­er to vis­it than big out-of-town DIY sheds, and often no more expen­sive. When you fac­tor in fuel, park­ing and your time, they might even be cheap­er. These shops are also staffed by peo­ple who know their stuff and val­ue their customers.

There’s a hard­ware shop near me, run by peo­ple who real­ly know what they’re talk­ing about. They’re experts, they’re will­ing to share those exper­tise to help me, and if I need three screws, they’ll sell me three, rather than mak­ing me buy 200.

It’s an infi­nite­ly more reward­ing shop­ping expe­ri­ence than what I’d receive online. The ques­tion is, how do we trans­late this altru­ism and qual­i­ty cus­tomer ser­vice to dig­i­tal retail?

Tech­nol­o­gy as a pow­er for good: Inno­va­tion in the char­i­ty sector

The char­i­ty sec­tor has always ben­e­fit­ted from a phys­i­cal space and strong pres­ence on the high street and the trusty col­lec­tion box remains a sta­ple fea­ture of most check­outs or tills across world. Scaled down from the life size ver­sions that used to fea­ture at the entrance of the many shops they still pro­vide an impor­tant source of income for many charities.

Sad­ly though, the char­i­ty sec­tor has been slow to dig­i­tal­ly adapt in recent years and the sud­den shift to ecom­merce and cash­less trans­ac­tions has left them exposed. But, there are encour­ag­ing signs and exam­ples of inno­v­a­tive non-prof­it brands evolv­ing their offer­ing, which should hope­ful­ly serve as a cat­a­lyst for the rest of the sector

Fin­tech char­i­ty Pen­nies has, among oth­ers, solved the col­lec­tion box prob­lem by cre­at­ing a dig­i­tal equiv­a­lent that works online and in-store. Rather than guilti­ly rush­ing past the char­i­ty col­lec­tor at your local train sta­tion because you don’t have any loose change, you can add an extra few pen­nies or pounds to your pur­chase and it goes straight to the nom­i­nat­ed charity.

It’s more effec­tive than a col­lec­tion box, because it works in store, online and across all chan­nels. To date, Pen­nies has raised £24 mil­lion for char­i­ty, proof alone that tech­nol­o­gy can be used as a pow­er for good.

Coro­n­avirus is accel­er­at­ing us towards a cash­less high street, mir­ror­ing the easy pur­chas­ing habits cre­at­ed by dig­i­tal retail. With­out mul­ti­chan­nel solu­tions like Pen­nies to replace the col­lec­tion box, the char­i­ta­ble sec­tor will lose millions.

Access­ing vital expert advice online or via the phone is a tougher call. It’s labour inten­sive and expen­sive to have experts on call ­– and I’m talk­ing about hard­ware store lev­els of exper­tise, not call-cen­tre lev­els. Call cen­tres have their place, but they’re not tai­lored to indi­vid­ual inter­ac­tions and solv­ing niche problems.

Com­bin­ing dig­i­tal and phys­i­cal retail: Breath­ing life back into the high street

What’s more, the research phase of a pur­chase – fil­ter­ing use­ful from opin­ion­at­ed – often takes as long as decid­ing what to buy, because retail­ers and man­u­fac­tur­ers are often not very good at impart­ing infor­ma­tion via dig­i­tal channels.

Inde­pen­dent review­ers and experts have filled this gap with a slew of video and sup­port­ing con­tent, but it’s still up the cus­tomer to fig­ure out who’s trust­wor­thy and knowl­edge­able. Some­times, it’s just eas­i­er to go to a shop and ask a human you know and trust.

It would be a real loss to com­mu­ni­ties and cus­tomers if retail’s best bits were lost in the rush to dig­i­tal com­merce – inter­ac­tion and altru­ism are impor­tant human qual­i­ties. Coro­n­avirus has made us re-eval­u­ate how we shop and the impor­tance of small shops, at the cost of the larg­er stores.

Per­haps retail’s future lies between local and dig­i­tal. More mixed use in town cen­tres and com­bin­ing inde­pen­dent shops with hous­ing could bring much-need­ed life to the high street – and keep the things we love about small-scale retail.

Dig­i­tal con­tin­ues to accel­er­ate but it replaces retail parks and out-of-town shop­ping cen­tres rather than the high street, adopt­ing some of the good things on the way.

Ide­al­is­tic? Maybe. But it seems there’s a chance to solve prob­lems and cre­ate a bet­ter future. If that’s ide­al­is­tic, then it sounds ide­al to me.

To learn more about how Adobe has helped brands cre­ate busi­ness growth through com­merce go the Com­merce Cloud cus­tomer suc­cess sto­ries on