What a weird and wonderful retail world we inhabit. Retail Week’s September Technology supplement talked about the blurring of the boundaries between the virtual and physical space.

What a weird and wonderful retail world we inhabit. Retail Week’s September Technology supplement talked about the blurring of the boundaries between the virtual and physical space in a world dominated by machines where technology replaces face-to-face human interaction.

Now, at the risk of being perceived as a Luddite past his sell-by date, I have to say that I see the future of physical stores being primarily geared to human interaction.

Yes, make available all the high-tech gadgetry, but retain a personal service level to provide differentiation from online. If a store merely replicates the online virtual experience what is its purpose beyond being a collection point?

I recently visited a Fresh & Easy store in California where it was immediately very clear why Tesco had failed to make it work - it did not deliver what it said ‘on the tin’. The experience was neither fresh nor easy, and for a neighbourhood store where a key component is human interaction it did not deliver.

Customers complained about the “lack of smiling faces” and felt alienated by what they saw as an example of poor customer service - the stores feature only automated self-checkout machines.

Creating a technology playground is right for Dixons or Apple but if you’re selling food, fashion etc you need a human dimension. Technology is fantastic but it must support not replace the basics of good retailing - quality products at competitive prices with good service. That said, you might think I would warm to Retail Week’s Property supplement when I read that recent research by property agents forecasts that the high street will recover over a seven-year period as vacancy rates drop back to 2006 levels by 2020 - ie from 12% to 7%.

That appears to be based on the premise that online sales will plateau by 2020 and will no longer be a threat to the high street. What do property people smoke? At least they didn’t have the audacity to overtly talk about rents rising again. Better make sure the next rating revaluation isn’t delayed again from 2017 to 2020.

The truth is out there somewhere. There is one inescapable trend that I see as critical - hybrid retailing. In part, diversification is a defensive survival strategy, hence B&Q initiating a search for complementary retailers to sublet space in its stores and Tesco big-boxes adding coffee shops, restaurants and gyms.

More importantly it is also offensive, giving customers more reasons to visit and making the store a part of the local community and people’s lifestyles.

A survey of US retailing illustrated how bike shops are shifting gears. It showed that 12% now have a coffee shop, 11% offer spinning classes and 5% beer.

In the One on One Bicycle Studio in Minneapolis, a barista claims to be able to change a flat tyre in three minutes and another mechanic is also trained in the kitchen.

While there is the obvious risk of reinventing the traditional greasy spoon cafe there is food for thought here for Halfords, Evans and the like.

  • John Richards retail consultant, McQueen