By Daniel Hunter

Despite major high street brands like M&S and WHSmith announcing profits in the first quarter of 2013, retailer optimism is not widespread. Today (Tuesday), findings from Rakuten reveal just 7 percent of retailers expect sales growth this year and 63 percent expect sales in physical stores to decline.

The future of the high street was further called into question, with one in four delegates stating that they expect Britain’s high street to shift to a showroom led dynamic over the next twelve months, where shoppers browse in store, but ultimately purchase online.

“There’s no question that shoppers still love that tangible branded shopping experience that the high street delivers so well, but this idea of showrooming is growing in popularity," Adam Stewart, Marketing Director at Rakuten’s Play.com commented on the trend.

"Ultimately it’s about creating multi-touch shopping experiences and this extends online, from interacting with customers through social channels to providing a dynamic and entertaining digital shopping experience.”

Pressure was also high for greater Government support for the retail sector; 83 percent of retailers thought the government could do more to support businesses both on and offline. Access to credit was of greatest concern, with 29 percent of vendors stating that banks needed greater encouragement to lend. Another key financial pinch point was the rise in business rates, with many retailers calling for a revision in rates to stimulate growth in the economy.

On the topic of growth, international markets were of huge interest to British retailers, with three quarters pinpointing international trade as a significant opportunity to increase sales. In fact, 40 percent of retailers believe the biggest benefit to selling online is the ability to expand audience reach and access the international shopping community. However, nearly a quarter of retailers were scared to take the plunge selling overseas, with 28 percent citing concerns around e-infrastructure, such as international payments and local language websites, as a major barrier to international sales.

Despite the growing need for an online offering, half of retailers questioned were concerned about attracting sufficient footfall to an independent website online, which highlights the growing role of the online marketplaces as a virtual shopping mall, driving shoppers to browse and buy.

Most retailers questioned still rely on email for the majority of customer communications with 69 percent stating this was their main customer contact channel. Despite the growing hype around social shopping, surprisingly Facebook and Twitter platforms were used by just 13 and 15 percent of retailers respectively.

“It’s interesting to see that few retailers are taking advantage of free social tools like Twitter and Facebook to engage shoppers," Adam Stewart added.

"It’s true that social is not for everyone, especially when you consider the resource required to run these channels effectively, but it’s a key part of delivering the multi-channel brand experiences consumers are fast coming to expect. At Rakuten’s Play.com we find this channel to be incredibly valuable as a sales influencer, an instant conversational platform and for customer service.”

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