It’s no secret that the high street as we know it is in trouble and has been for some time. In recent years we’ve seen some of the biggest names in retail fall on hard times and struggle to keep pace with consumers’ changing motivations. Woolworths, House of Fraser, HMV, Toys ‘R’ Us and Marks & Spencer have all seen shop closures or worse. Without change, it’s not a problem that’s going to go away any time soon.

In December last year, high street giant Primark announced reduced sales and dwindling footfall which has become symptomatic of the sector, with few exceptions and some experts predicting up to ten thousand shops could close in 2019 alone, as businesses seek to cut costs and overheads. That’s not even including the hundreds of smaller, local independent businesses which struggle to turn a profit.

The turbulent political and economic climate of the past few years, the impact of austerity, uncertainty around Brexit and stagnating wages across the country have all contributed to a climate where consumers are more reluctant to spend and are holding back on purchases. Even the weather hasn’t helped, although you can only blame these factors up to a point when some retailers are still thriving.

The prevalence of smart phones, tablets and laptops combined with the streamlining of sales processes making it easier than ever to buy, has seen year-on-year increases in the percentage of purchases made online. With currently around twenty per cent of retail sales made online (a trend showing no signs of slowing down), is it the case that many retailers have simply been too slow to adapt to new trends in buying and consumer behaviour? In today’s fast-moving market, standing still is the same as falling behind. Retailers that are not struggling are listening to their customers and are adapting to the modern trends and ways to shop. They are utilising the marketing tools and channels they have at hand – one of which is email.

Some believed the introduction of the new GDPR regulations across the UK and Europe was signalling the end of email marketing. However, despite early worries GDPR has been far from the disaster many expected. The reality has in fact been quite the opposite.

A fully GDPR-compliant mailing list is truly a thing of beauty. Contact details and preferences are now fully verified, with those on the list engaged and happy to receive marketing communications and emails. In other words, retailers already have their audience, it’s just about giving them what they want. Yet across the board, bar a few stand out exceptions, retailers simply aren’t making the most of the opportunities email offers, so it’s no wonder the sector is struggling. 

This last point is key, because email alone isn’t going to be enough, it needs to be used to its fullest potential. For this to happen, retail marketers need to embrace three things: automation, personalisation and relevancy.

Thanks to technological developments over the past few years, marketers now have the opportunity to automate large amounts of the email process, eliminating the time-consuming, repetitive and often tedious manual build process. Doing so improves efficiency, effectively reducing costs and freeing up time which can be put to good use developing your CRM or exploring other marketing avenues. Furthermore, linking this automation to existing content feeds can see emails displaying the latest content every time it is opened, whether that is new offers, prices or latest news, removing the need to manually manage the feed of content to customers.

Harnessed properly, automation opens up a whole new world of possibilities when it comes to personalization, too. Coupling automation with email content based on each individual’s preferences or previous browse and purchase data now gives marketers the ability to drastically enhance customer experiences, driving engagement, retention and conversion. It would seem a no-brainer, yet despite many listing it as one of the top upcoming trends in email marketing, a recent survey of email marketers found only six per cent are using personalization in their activities. It is clear the sector needs to catch up with the technology available to them, but realistically, improved email performance is just half of the battle. A high click-through rate is great for demonstrating impact, but it isn’t going to keep the shops open. To translate great engagement to increased footfall, marketers need to think a little more creatively and give consumers more of a reason to pay their store a visit in person.

This is where the third key element can come into play – relevance. The ubiquity of smart phones opens up a huge amount of potential for marketing-in-the-moment, such as tailoring email content to include the closest store based on the user’s current location. But why stop there? If the weather has been a thorn in the side of retailers, why not turn that to your advantage with weather-specific promotions on cold weather clothing or raincoats?

Relevancy is a fantastic way to add an extra layer of personalization which speaks directly to the customer at the moment they open their email. But again, email is only part of the equation, because while getting customers to go in-store is challenging enough, if their experience there is underwhelming or less-than-satisfactory, why would they go back? The in-store experience needs to be a great one, whether through store design, customer service or exclusive deals. Because, while email has a huge amount more to offer than it did, say, ten years ago, it remains the best way of keeping customers informed with the latest, exciting and compelling information. If the information contained in the email matches the real experience, retailers could begin seeing genuine results that could turn the tide of decline.

While email undeniably has a part to play in reviving the high street, tracking a consumer’s journey from opening an email to purchasing in-store has proven difficult to date. Some forward-thinking retailers have already experimented with a somewhat ‘old’ tech customer-unique QR codes as a way of measuring the real impact of their email campaigns, although there is still some way to go before the approach is water-tight. However, while retailers are still to crack that particular nut, it’s clear the full potential for email has yet to be reached, both in terms of its use and measuring its impact. So, while the idea of email saving the high street might seem a little far-fetched, it might not be so far away after all.

By Matt Hayes, CEO and founder of Kickdynamic, a marketing consultancy trusted by over 200 of the world’s leading retail, fashion and travel brands to deliver compelling, individualised customer experiences through highly personalized email, at scale.