To describe the High Street as a battleground is only to state what the trading figures tell you. For some major names, this year marks the point where they turn a corner and see sales steadily grow. For others, there is still a struggle ahead as cautious consumers look to extract the maximum from their spending power.
Yet winners and losers both face the same shift in power towards the shopper, now armed with genuine weapons of choice: barcode scanning apps that immediately reveal full product details, comparison sites that show whether the shelf price is the best on offer, social sites that provide a large audience willing to pass comment on whatever you plan to buy.
“Social shopping” is just one of the ways in which consumers continue to chip away at the retail edifice. (Although a recent example of a crowd-sourced wedding dress choice presented at the Academy of Marketing special interest group event in January suggested the crowd is not always wise...)
So how should retailers respond? Two competing strategies appear to be in play, both of which effectively declare war on the shopper - one overtly, the other covertly. The most surprising (and secretive) solution mentioned at the Academy event is an attempt to block consumer access to the online arsenal.
One retailer is testing the use of a Faraday cage which prevents mobile devices from connecting to a network or wi-fi signal as long as the individual is in the store. Imposing this communications blackout puts shoppers back into a state they last inhabited before the year 2000 - deciding on their own whether the items in stock are interesting, well-priced, attractive and so on. It could be a dramatic shock to Millennials and Generation X-ers who have never had to make purchases on their own recognisance in this way.
As dramatic as this solution may seem (and it is remarkably easy and cheap to turn standard retail units dark in this way), is it really that different from the more obvious retailing strategy of turning to big data? Another technology solution due to be deployed in 2014 will see the introduction of beacons into stores that track the every move of a mobile device and, if the user has the right app and has given permission, combines this with personal information.
Tracking and profiling shoppers in this way gives stores a major advantage over their customers, since they can scan the data for any behavioural, attitudinal and preferential indicators that might trigger a marketing intervention at point of sale. Few of us can recall that much about our own personal histories or be so self-aware that we can resist the lure of a prompt to make an impulse buy.
So retailers can make their choice - switch on or switch off the mobile data flow. Neither has yet proven itself the most commercially effective, but both put the consumer at a disadvantage. Given the steady shift of power towards shoppers over the last decade as a result of mobile access and online information, this may just be a rebalancing of market forces.