8 ecommerce lessons from the 'failing' high street

Ecommerce Lessons From 'Failing' High Street

The ‘decline’ of the high street is nothing new, but the shocking news that industry giant Debenhams is on the verge of administration is a reminder that no business, online or offline, is above failure.

In 2008, the recession shook the business world, and whilst lots of big brands managed to keep their heads above water, there was no shortage of casualties. Companies across the globe, both big and small, fell victim to one of the worst financial disasters in modern history.

There's no denying the increasing power of the internet, especially in comparison to 10 years ago. It's been instrumental in changing buyer behaviour, making it easier for customers to shop from the comfort of their own home. Thanks to many online businesses offering favourable shipping and returns options, shopping online is often more preferable than having to go from store to store in the hope you’ll find what you’re looking for.

Fast-forward a decade and industry leaders are either closing branches, being forced into administration or facing an uncertain future. Top companies like Woolworths, Toys R Us, Debenhams, BHS, Maplin, House of Fraser, HMV, and LK Bennett are some of the most notable examples.

Many struggling high street stores were heavily dependant on in-store foot traffic, while ecommerce businesses were stealing customers from under their nose. Failing to implement a comprehensive O2O (offline-to-online) marketing strategy,  designed to drive in-store traffic online and vice versa, was the straw that broke the camel’s back for some of the biggest high street casualties.

Global ecommerce is showing no sign of slowing down, with sales reaching almost $3 trillion in 2018 - close to 15% of all retail sales across the world. And based on current online and mobile trends, Statista suggests that ecommerce is expected to reach to $4.88 trillion by 2021. What’s even more mind blowing is the fact that in 2016 that total was $2 trillion - that’s roughly 50% increase in just two years.


global ecommerce sales 2018 ecommerce lessons

Source: Digital Commerce 360

Surprisingly, data shows that only 26% of small businesses have an e-commerce website. It might be safe to assume that many of these businesses have profitable brick-and-mortar stores, and see no need to add an online platform into the mix. Some highly successful in-store brands we've worked with actually feel ecommerce as a distraction, with budget and time being two of the main factors holding them back.

Anyone that has ever worked with an entrepreneur will confirm that they're guilty of burning the candle at both ends. Handling customer service, marketing, sales, finance, product and HR, which leaves little room for long term growth planning. Having worked with brands of all shapes and sizes, Underwaterpistol understands brands need someone who can provide expert advice and support when it comes to launching and scaling their online business.

A strategic partnership with an agency provides instant access to a team of experienced ecommerce experts dedicated to supporting you with not only choosing the right platform but also the look, feel, functionality and growth of your online store. Allowing entrepreneurs to focus on making the right decisions needed to grow their business by remaining high level. 

Working with ecommerce brands across the globe, we’ve seen traditional brick-and-mortar brands take the online world by storm. If a business is thriving without an online presence, imagine what could be achieved if you were able to reach an international audience without needing any more physical locations.

Let’s take a look at what ecommerce brands can learn from high street chains that haven’t been so lucky.

1. Analyse Your Data

analyse website site data ecommerce growth

The increasing failure of the high street is largely down to an inability to effectively collect, measure and interpret data. As the saying goes, you can’t manage what you don’t measure. Analysing website data provides invaluable insight into who your ideal customer is, where to find them, and how best to target them - which can be used in-store and online.

A great example of a brand that shows a great understanding of their customer is online giant ASOS. ASOS have taken great care in understanding who their customers are, where to find them, what their interests are and what’s most important to them.

Undoubtedly their findings were instrumental in implementing flexible payment terms using Klarna, and technology aimed at making finding the right clothes size a breeze, as well as being able to visualise clothing on a range of different body types.

Online brands that seem to have hit a plateau in their sales often get stuck. Perhaps PPC campaigns were the main lead generator, and all of a sudden your campaigns aren't performing as well.  This is something we see time and time again, and unfortunately, the philosophy 'if it ain't broke don't fix it' doesn't apply when it comes to data-driven marketing.

Our strategic approach to improving site performance involves reverse-engineering the sales process to optimise the conversion funnel for maximum profits. We adopt a data-driven approach to growth, CRO (conversion rate optimisation) being fundamental. A combination of techniques is used to create and implement tailormade growth strategies, unifying design, dev and digital efforts to boost profits. 

2. Finetune Your Branding

Effectively communicating brand values can be the difference between success and failure. In most cases, people buy into brands rather than products, which is often a critical learning lesson for online brands.

Branding is something that brick-and-mortar stores have always struggled with, mostly down to the fact that it’s difficult to analyse customer behaviour in-store.  

This is where online brands have a huge added advantage, as most ecommerce platforms are designed to make it easy to express brand values. As an online brand, it’s much easier to engage and respond to social and political trends in real time. 

Let’s look at ASOS’ branding which is very obviously based on inclusivity. They embrace models of different shapes, sizes and ethnicities, and encourages body positivity by making a conscious choice not to photoshop ‘imperfections’ like stretch marks.

Their branding is clear across all their channels, meaning no matter what channel a customer uses, they will receive the same message - ASOS is for everyone. 

3. Embrace Your Competition


high street retail competition ecommerce growth

The fashion industry is one of the most saturated sectors in retail, making it harder than ever to stand out from the crowd. The most searched fashion brand of 2017 was Fashion Nova, a brand that has been around for more than a decade.

What started out as a brick-and-mortar store, has now become a top hit with influencers and celebrities across the globe. The founder, Richard Saghian, noticed customers modelling their purchases on Instagram and decided to give ecommerce a try, even though wasn’t totally convinced that online would work.

Thanks to social proof and an amazing influencer marketing strategy, Fashion Nova is a great example of how brick-and-mortar brands can embrace online. There will always be competitors, but that’s not a bad thing. Use competition to your advantage by figuring out what works for them, where they have gaps in their offering and pinpoint specific areas where your brand brings more value.

The key to success is effectively communicating this to your ideal target audience. Take time to speak to your customers and understand why they choose you over the competition. It’s crucial that you make sure your messaging is clear and transparent - both in your written and visual content.

4. Understand Your Customers

We’ve worked with lots of brands who have an amazing physical presence, and see online as a bit of an afterthought. One brand, in particular, had a boutique store in London and a huge international following on Instagram, but no online store.

They received messages almost every day from followers asking where they could find their products online. However, they were so caught up in the day-to-day of running a shop, that an online store seemed like an unnecessary headache.

It can be difficult to see the benefits of adding an online element to your business, especially if that upsets the status quo. Ultimately that comes down to your customers, where they want to spend money and whether you want to reach an international audience or not.

It’s important to note that some of our brands use their online store to provide deeper insight into their target audience and buyer behaviour, and as a way to drive more people in-store. Historically, businesses would pay hefty sums for a series of mystery shoppers to give feedback on their in-store experience.

Some might argue the fact they’re being paid for feedback is somewhat biased in itself. What some brands fail to appreciate is how much value an online store will bring to your overall growth strategy and bottom line. Make sure you take the time to listen and engage with your customer in an authentic way.

5. Don't Fear Change

be prepared to change to achieve ecommerce growth

It’s common knowledge that human beings are resistant to change, which unfortunately rings true in business too. Traditional marketing suggests that success is dictated by how many people who have in-store each day. Some brands even worry that an online store will drive away foot traffic.

Sometimes it’s easier to stick to what you know, but what if that means you’re missing out on a huge growth opportunity? Take high street brands, for example, who pay a premium for prime locations with access to more footfall. The catch-22 is that it’s almost impossible to force people to come into your store and make a purchase. However, this is less of an issue for online stores.

Having an online store provides an opportunity to secretly ‘spy’ on your customers,  rather than feeling like in-store sales assistants are 'stalking' you. Online stock levels can be automated and are managed according to need, there’s no need for sales assistants and you can even retarget customers who left your online store without making a purchase - win-win!

Being online also gives you the opportunity to reach an international audience, and retailers that can unify their online and offline presence will be able to grow much quicker. Embrace change!

6. Don't Be Overconfident

A classic case of overconfidence comes from the CEO of Blockbuster, John Antioco. Antioco was approached by Netflix in 2000, around the time that the internet was starting to become part of people's everyday lives. Netflix presented the idea of turning Blockbuster into a “click-and-mortar” video rental. A perfect example of O2O marketing - select videos online and collect them instore.

Executives at Blockbuster laughed Netflix out of the meeting, confident in their success. Now the world's sixth-largest internet company by revenue, Netflix boasts over 139 million subscribers across more than 190 countries, with a market value of about $150 billion.

Blockbuster was a billion dollar business with a 60% profit margins a decade ago but were forced to close their remaining 300 Blockbuster stores and filed for bankruptcy in 2013. I’m sure this is a decision that continues to haunt Antioco. The lesson here is to adapt if an opportunity arises, and don’t fall victim to overconfidence.

7. Always Think Omnichannel

omnichannel shopping ecommerce growth

By embracing the fact that the customer journey can start on many different channels, like social media, online or in-store, you’re able to provide a more joined up experience. Even though your customers may shop on different channels, you’ll be able to provide a similar experience.

A great example of a brand that has truly joined up their various channels is H&M. They providing in-store WiFi to encourage customers to browse their social media accounts for inspiration. In addition to staff members being trained in using stock checking devices, the H&M app allows customers to scan clothing tags using their mobile phone to check availability at the store they’re in, and also for nearby stores.

Choosing the right platform is essential when it comes to building an omnichannel ecommerce brand. We work with brands to identify what their specific requirements are, and which platform is better suited to meeting their requirements. Ultimately brands need a platform that can support an omnichannel growth strategy, so all channels are managed under one platform. 

8. Scale Using Technology

Brick-and-mortar stores have come a long way in recent years when it comes to implementing technology, as demonstrated by H&M. Another fantastic example of O2O technology is Ikea, who integrated augmented reality software into their online experience to create an in-store experience from people’s smartphones. 

Their goal was to inspire people designing or furnishing their home, particularly those with limited interior design skills. This new technology has helped customers make better purchases, significantly reduced returns and has driven more qualified traffic to IKEA stores.

The beauty of being online is having a multitude of technology solutions at your fingertips, designed to help you with every single element of your online store. Technology is at the heart of our recommendations for brands we work with. If we see a solution that has worked really well for some of our brands, we’ll be sure to let others know that they should be testing out too.  

Don’t be afraid to try something new, and don’t worry if it doesn’t work. If you’re not sure where to start, look at your data. Or better yet, get an expert to interpret your data and outline your key growth opportunities. Once you’re clear on what you need to focus on, it’s easy to pick which tech solutions will support you best.



Embrace the fast-moving pace of digital ecommerce, and make 2019 the year that you take your business to the next level. The way that consumers purchase products and services has changed dramatically in the last two decades. 

If you own a brick-and-mortar store, this is not something to see as an obstacle, but instead an opportunity to get your brand in front of more customers. And for those running online businesses, learn from the mistakes made by industry giants and use it to your advantage.

Don’t get so caught up in the day to day of running a retail store that you miss the big picture and it’s too late to do anything about it. As the popular saying goes: 'A smart person learns from their mistakes, but a truly wise person learns from the mistakes of others’.

If you want to speak to a team of experts who can get you on the right path, we’d be happy to help. With almost two decades experience building and designing websites, on platforms like Shopify and Kooomo, it’s safe to say we have a trick or two up our sleeve. Why not schedule a free consultation with one of our experts?