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High street retailers look to the internet for inspiration’

Debenhams has announced that Peter Fitzgerald, country sales director for Google UK and Ireland, has joined its board as a non-executive director.

I don’t typically comment on the quality of hiring decisions that retailers make but, well, that sounds like a very clever hire to me. Fitzgerald has a wealth of experience in helping retail businesses realise their online ambitions, most notably with Amazon and Google.

Growing its multichannel business is a crucial part of Debenhams’ sales strategy and, as one of the leading experts in his field, Fitzgerald is bound to make a sizeable contribution in this area. While other executives are still busy claiming that the internet is ‘killing the high street’, Debenhams has effectively called in the online cavalry to see how these two sides can not only coexist but actually help one another.

While it’s very easy to see the internet as the enemy of high street retail - and to blame it every time a bricks-and-mortar retailer goes out of business - that isn’t actually very fair. In most cases, these businesses are failing because of their inability to adapt to the challenges posed by the online revolution. In fact, the retailers reporting the strongest sales at the moment are those that have embraced the internet to provide a robust multichannel offering that complements, rather than competes with, the high street.

This approach can actually be used to drive footfall to the high street, and to enhance the in-store experience for consumers at the same time. At the very least, high street stores need a website that allows potential customers to access information about the product range and location, so that they have the opportunity to research their purchases online before hitting the high street for some retail therapy.

According to a new report from Econsultancy, 35% of House of Fraser’s online orders are now being collected in store, and about 25% of these consumers make an additional purchase once they’re in the store. If closer links between the high street and online shopping can help to grow these figures even further, then retailers need to think about how they blend these two different areas into one more effectively.

Dan Coen, director, corporate advisory firm Zolfo Cooper

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