Technology is often blamed for the collapse of the high street. With shoppers increasingly preferring the ease and speed of making purchases online, rather than in a physical store, more and more stores are closing their doors. This isn’t surprising; after all, if you can find what you need online, at a lower price, with free delivery and you don’t even need to leave your house, then why bother slogging into the town centre?

Of course, the loss of these community hubs is lamentable, and many retailers have turned towards technology to tempt shoppers back in store. So, far from being the wrecking ball, could tech actually help to futureproof the high street for this new decade and beyond?

Reality, but not as you know it 

Virtual and augmented reality are two trends that have already been helping retailers improve shopping experiences. This is particularly prevalent in fashion; magic mirrors, which enable the user to view outfits in different environments, have been in place for a while – since Burberry’s first installation in 2012 – but these mirrors are getting smarter, combining VR and AR to allow users to visualise themselves in new clothes, without ever having to physically change. Mastercard has even created a mirror that allows customers to pay for clothes in the changing room, allowing savvy shoppers to skip the queue and walk straight out of the store.

It’s not just improving the existing shopping process, either. Perhaps taking inspiration from out of town shopping centres, high street stores have been using VR and AR to create memorable and exciting experiences for visitors. Topshop’s VR waterslide, which transported users over London buses and black cabs on a virtual Oxford Street, was a big attraction, as was John Lewis’ Buster the Boxer VR experience. Retailers are unquestionably thinking outside the box, using technology to improve their bricks-and-mortar offerings, and Goldman Sachs predicts that the market for AR and VR in retail will reach $1.6 billion by 2025.

Automated assistance

There are varying reports on how many jobs in retail will be displaced by automation, with a recent survey claiming half a million UK workers would lose out to robots by 2024. However, as we’ve seen with other industries, this replacement is more likely to be displacement, with retailers finding a way for bots to free up store employees’ time so that they can concentrate on distinctly human tasks. Robots which can take payments, answer stock queries, make pricing corrections and keep things clean and tidy are likely to become commonplace.

It’s behind the scenes where automation can really help to transform the retail sector. Reactive supply chain management can help replenish stock as soon as smart shelves register that quantities are running low. This reduces the need for large, fully stocked warehouses, saving businesses money and lessening the likelihood of unwanted products. These warehouses are also likely to be powered by robots, decreasing the number of low-skilled, often dangerous jobs in favour of highly technical and better-paid roles.

Data driven decisions

So far, retailers have taken a reactive, rather than proactive, approach to data. Sales records show what works and what doesn’t, and stores continue to do more of what does. But, retailers already have a lot of legacy data which can help them to track patterns and behaviours in order to predict future trends.

Smart shelves not only help to control stock; they can also determine shopper behaviour. These IoT connected devices can track how often an item is picked up but not sold, for example, helping stores to identify the products which attract interest but don’t sell.

And it doesn’t stop there. Retailers are only beginning to appreciate the applications of technology on the high street, and have yet to explore all areas. Blockchain, for example, is predicted to have a huge impact upon retail, with Deloitte expecting “widespread, mainstream adoption… sooner rather than later”.

The possibilities are endless. If retailers are able to utilise technology as part of a long-term strategy, tech may end up being the saviour of the high street after all.