“Erosion, neglect and mismanagement” has led the British high street to the point of extinction, according to Mary Portas, but she’s overlooking a very simple truth.

“Erosion, neglect and mismanagement” has led the British high street to the point of extinction, according to Mary Portas.

The Government’s ‘high street tsar’ and self-styled ‘Queen of Shops’ blames local retail communities for allowing the high street to fall into its current state of disrepair, but she’s overlooking a very simple truth. British consumer habits have changed. UK shoppers have increasingly migrated online.

Ofcom figures released in 2012 show that the average Briton spends about 15 hours a week online, while recent figures from the OECD also revealed that Britain is the biggest online shopping nation in the world. If British retailers want to inspire customers to return to the high street they need to reach out to them online and via mobile devices like smartphones and tablets.

Many large high street brands such as Marks & Spencer, Next and New Look have used online ads to support strong ecommerce and rapidly growing m-commerce performance. The trick they may be missing is using online ads on a local level to drive customers in store.

Portas’ scheme aims to fill the 14.6% of high street shops across Britain currently standing empty, and return customer footfall to the high street’s glory days. In July 2012 15 towns joined the original 12 to be named ‘Portas Pilots’, set to receive funding, guidance and mentoring from Portas herself. However this leaves 400 towns with unsuccessful applications and a desperate need to reclaim the physical footfall of local customers.

Online advertising - bizarrely ignored by Mary Portas in her December 2011 report - should be being used by retailers to coax local customers out from behind computer screens and back into high street stores, but widespread adoption has been hampered by a lack of effective systems that work on a local level.

Franchises, micro businesses and pop-up shops in particular - a steadily growing presence on British high streets - have been reticent to try online ads. One of the problems they often identify is that without an ecommerce offering online ads can’t do anything for them. They’re wrong.

Consider Starbucks. Its primary business is offline purchases - after all, you can’t buy a cup of coffee online. Recently the coffee giant ran a campaign in which they gave away a free latte to anyone who got to their local store before noon, with spectacular results. Businesses don’t necessarily need to give stock away, but letting local people know about offers and events at local stores can help drive customers to make in-store purchases.

What businesses really need in austere times is assurances. Retailers need to know that their ads will be seen by local customers. Online ad services should be able to guarantee thousands of local ad views each month. (Ad Dynamo Local Beta, for example, guarantees 50,000 for £40.) Ad views should be generated through a wide, quality network of local publishers, but should also be delivered through social networks like Facebook.

Britain is migrating online, and it’s important for retailers from the biggest high street brand to the most fleeting pop-up shop to reach customers in that digital environment. Online ad services should help high street retailers to manage their budgets effectively while targeting a large audience of truly local customers. If they do, retailers will be able to use online ads to coax local customers out from behind their computer screens and back into stores, and might just save the British high street in the process.

  • Sean Riley, chief executive, Ad Dynamo