Hacking the High Street

The high street has been a topic of great debate over the past 12 months (and indeed for several years). There have been numerous research studies, including that by Live & Breathe which found what while we hold the high street in great affection, we’re simply not shopping there the way we used to. We’ve seen the experts come to blows – the government’s High Street Czar Mary Portas and ex-Wickes and Iceland CEO Bill Grimsey exchanged heated words about each other’s reviews. And now as we approach Christmas, new stats from Ofcom have found that Britons do more online shopping than any other nation, spending £1,175 each – not the cheeriest news for the physical store on the high street. But we’re not giving up on the high street and when I say we, I include myself in that collective. There are groups of people looking at new ways to invigorate off-line shopping as I found out at a recent event ‘Hack The High Street’ – my very first hackathon (an event where a group of people collaborate intensively on a project). I was intrigued when I heard about the event via Eventbrite. Velvet works with a number of shopper and retail specialists so we’re always on the lookout for anything we can read, listen to, watch or attend which may be beneficial to us and our clients.

Organised by Birdback (a platform which links apps to payment cards) and American Express, the hackathon was a weekend-long event that saw three leading retailers and a collection of designers, techies and a token PR girl (that was me) spend 24 hours together with one common interest – the high street. The brief from Birdback was clear; ‘we’re looking for awesome ideas to be shaped and built during the weekend by top geeks. For example, how could technology help enhance the high street? How could software and great design take customer experience to the next level? How would you merge the online and offline worlds to boost footfall and loyalty?’ – all questions you might expect to find in a marketing brief. The day kicked off with pastries and coffee by Harris + Hoole and networking. The majority of people had turned up to the event in groups of colleagues and hackathon-habitues. I was simply there to see what it was all about. After teaming up with a designer and young entrepreneur, we all sat down to listen to presentations from three leading retailers; M&S, B&Q and Harris + Hoole, each of whom explained barriers they were facing or areas of the offline experience they were working to improve. Anyone who had an initial problem-solving idea was then given 60 seconds to address the audience and recruit if they needed specialist team mates, e.g. a software programmer. If I’m honest, I wasn’t particularly taken with any of the ideas as many had been formulated before the day. Instead I was hoping to join a group who would be thinking on their feet and address the issues of one retailer in particular; M&S. I found my earlier-made acquaintances were in the same boat and we set about brainstorming. One of the main issues with M&S for me is its ladies’ clothing department. It’s never very easy to navigate and the glamour from the glitzy adverts never seems to be communicated or the clothing found in-store. So we set about creating an idea that would create a seamless store experience with particular focus on creating an app that would help shoppers to navigate the clothing department and also bring all of their existing purchase data together via one portal.

One of the best parts of the experience for me was getting the opportunity to speak to M&S’s head of Digital Labs Kyle McGinn one-to-one about the issues he’s tackling and to run our idea past him. Unfortunately we ran out of time to complete our app (which remains unnamed for now as we’re hoping to develop it further), but taking part in the event was a fantastic personal learning experience. I was forced into a situation where I didn’t know anybody and had to think on my feet in a way that I wasn’t used to. I got to meet some incredibly bright young sparks, and hear from and speak to some leading retailers. Events like Birdback’s Hack The High Street are vital to attracting the interest of young and innovative individuals who may be able to offer new ideas to enhance the in-store shopping experience. So here’s a (slightly early) toast to more hackathon events and more broadly, the high street in 2014 – long may it live and prosper.