The Times Retail Editor Ashley Armstrong Shares her Thoughts on the Future of Retail

This article is part of Raydiant’s new Future of Retail series which interviews the world’s leading retail experts to better understand how the industry has evolved and most importantly, where it’s headed.

The following is from a recent interview with The Times retail editor, Ashley Armstrong.

What personally excites you the most about the retail industry?

AA: I still love the characters in retail and the energy they have. It’s one of the few industries where there’s no social glass ceiling, people can make it from the shop floor to boardroom if they graft and have enough energy. That should be really protected, particularly when university degrees have become ubiquitous for success, because it makes the industry much more entrepreneurial than say, insurance. I’m also excited by the shake-up that’s going on as the old beasts of retail are really struggling as new, online brands go from strength to strength because they know who their customers are and they’re giving them what they want. It’s basic shopkeeping but now online. Plenty of big chains have lost sight of that.

What has been the most dramatic change you've seen in the industry over the past 3-5 years?

AA: The rise of restructurings and retail casualties. Plenty of big, high profile names have limped through the past decade by tinkering around the edges, taking money out the business and not investing in the changes that were coming down the track. The rise of online shopping is nothing new, we’ve been talking about it for ages but suddenly a number of names have been whipped by failing to prepare for it. With the growth of online brands and platforms there’s more choice than ever, so big retailers can’t assume people will just shop with them because there’s a lack of alternatives in the town. The rise of online shopping and social media means the customer isn’t confined to their local high street.

What are the top trends you see shaping brick and mortar retail in the next 3-5 years?

AA: Probably bricks and mortar retailers figuring out how to make their store estate work for them and how to make their shops more appealing. And hopefully abandoning the awful “omnichannel” word. If a retailer has shops across the country they should be closer to their customers than an online retailer with a couple of warehouses.

What technology do you believe will have the biggest impact on the retail industry in the next 3-5 years?

AA: It’s hard to predict because no one knew how much of a game changer the iPhone or Instagram would be. I think subscription models could still be quite interesting for food retail (essentially bringing back the milkman for a modern consumer) and I’m quite interested in AI sizing tools so people have a better idea about whether a dress they buy online will fit them or suit their shape.

What's the future of brick and mortar retail?

AA: Fewer shops but better shops. This doesn’t just mean putting blowdry and nail bars in department stores, but making shops an inviting, entertaining welcoming space to go. I think service is still such a huge part of physical retail and the sooner we get over eye-rolling shop assistants the better. There is an ability to really win over customers by telling them more about a brand or fixing their problems. The problem is that’s easy for a boutique to do, but it’s really difficult to replicate that standard across 500 shops. I think that the larger chains have more to do in terms of serving their local communities – giving over space to social needs. There’s plenty of upsell potential still if people are crossing the threshold.