We live in a world today where accessibility to products and services has never been easier or as extensive.Whether it’s finding a plumber, booking a hotel room or purchasing a washing machine, as consumers we now have a huge choice of retailers to buy, whether from bricks and mortar or online.

It’s also easier than ever for consumers to research products, services and pricing online, forcing bricks and mortar retailers to be as competitive as their online counterparts – and in many cases, propels them to offer better incentives.

Historically, brands had it easy. For many years, we as consumers relied upon the brands advertising to tell us about their goods. Typically we had little access to third party information, so much of our ‘trust’ was placed in their advertising or by recommendation. Today is very different. We have almost unlimited access to information about companies and their products online and websites reviewing goods and services. As a result, the consumer has never been better informed.

Brands are now constantly under threat from their competitors and if they are to survive, must no longer rely on their reputation alone.Consumers are also no longer ‘brand snobs’ and have never been more conscious of value for money when it comes to the products they buy. Unthinkable years ago, today, many middle class professionals now shop in Primark and Lidl, not just because of the great value these retailers offer, but also because the consumer no longer places the same value as they once did on designer brands. Why spend £60 on a designer polo shirt when you can buy a near identical product for £5?

Our spending habits have also changed. We spend less on clothes, but more on holidays and eating out. In essence, we are changing our value systems. The consumer has become more savvy than ever and is forever looking for better value. Not just value in terms of price, but value including all the elements of the purchase, including but notwithstanding quality, design and service (before and after).

Even brands like Apple need to stay at the top of their game if they are to protect their market share, demonstrated by the collapse of brands like Nokia and Blackberry, which failed to keep up with market trends and demands. The UK probably has the most extensive number of brands and companies actively looking to carve out business for themselves in our highly competitive and open market place.

From distributors drop shipping for ebay sellers, to Chinese factories selling direct to consumers worldwide, there has never been more companies fighting for the consumer’s pocket. One major change I have observed over the last 10 years in our major bricks and mortar retailers, is the move away from supporting new, niche and challenger brands and instead focussing more on the top tier brands and increasingly their own label offerings.

In addition, many retailers also license former glory brands from within their sector to try and offer something offering great value with a brand that consumers recognise while making higher margins. Sadly I think consumers are getting wise to this tactic and are starting to develop a certain distrust of these ultra cheap ‘branded’ products. Many retailers have their own offices now in the far east where they either source or design and manufacture their own branded products, as they see in many cases their own brands being as strong or even stronger than many of the developing/challenger brands in their corresponding markets.

The retailers also use these ‘OEM/Licensed’ brands to leverage better terms with their key suppliers, as typically many of these products are vanilla products or like for like cheaper versions of mainstream branded products. Unfortunately, rarely do they show any real innovation or USP. The damaging effect of many of the retailers investing more and more in their own label products is that it is stifling the smaller companies and acting as a barrier to genuinely innovative and new brands from securing retail shelf space whilst at the same time limiting choice to consumers.

In fact, for most new brands to market, one of the greatest hurdles they will face is securing retail shelf space. That is why we increasingly see new brands seeking support from platforms like Kickstarter or Amazon to launch their products direct to the consumer. In my opinion, many consumer electronic retail buyers have been under more pressure to focus increasingly on maximising revenue and margin and reducing risk that it has got to the extent that they rarely support new, niche or challenger brands.

I remember as the PC and Peripherals buyer for Tempo meeting with and trialling new, innovative, yet unknown brands in my stores to see if there was any sales traction. Of course, sometimes the products stuck on the shelves, but occasionally we would find a winner. At least we tried to support some of these companies looking for a breakthrough. But sadly these days, unless the product is being heavily advertised or there is already proven demand for it, coupled with a comprehensive promotional plan and marketing fund for the retailer, most new brands don’t get a look in.

I think it is a sad state of affairs when our leading retailers give a disproportionate amount of support to Korean and Japanese brands simply because it is the path of least resistance when there are many innovative quality companies crying out for support from these retailers to help them establish their brands. The result of this is obvious to see! Whichever retailer I visit, one thing always stands out to me; lack of differentiation.

In my view, nearly all of the retailers I visit are guilty of stocking at least 75%+ of the same top branded products as each other, each competing on price alone or not competing at all depending on the brand and your point of view. It’s so vanilla and in my opinion so dull!

In this age of Social Media including Blogging Sites, Facebook, Twitter and the like I would like to warn the big bricks and mortar retailers to ignore the challenger brands at their peril. The new Millennials or Generation Y are now one of the most important demographics when it comes to consumer spending and their retail buying habits are vastly different from the baby boomer generation.

Primarily they engage with brands digitally rather than through traditional advertising methods and have concerns like eco-friendly, ethically sourced and low carbon footprint in their minds, as well as being more likely to make impulse purchases and purchase decisions by word-of-mouth recommendations. So, if retailers want their business, they need to engage with them digitally and through social media.

I believe that is is now possible for new brands, which have innovative and uniquely designed products, to develop a successful business using online platforms such as Amazon, online bloggers and product review sites. They can leverage interest and demand through digital marketing, offering both easy accessibility and great value to consumers, while bypassing traditional bricks and mortar completely. Indeed, while the bigger brands continue to throw vast amounts of money at retailers to defend shelf space and market share, this is really the only option for the new to market brands.

I don’t need to tell you how much business is now going online and while there is still a place for these ‘traditional’ retailers, they are becoming less relevant as a place of purchase and becoming more like showrooms, with customers looking and researching in-store, but then buying online. I myself am guilty of this, but have no feeling of guilt whatsoever. Increasingly, I would argue that consumers are becoming less brand loyal and the saying ‘you are only as good as your last product’ is ringing true in the marketplace.

Retail needs to re-focus on what it does best – which is retail – instead of pumping ever more resources into own label and licensed ranges. Retailers need to re-focus their energies and budgets, on offering consumers great choice, variety, value and service to capture them and their purchase in an in-store environment or risk losing them to another competitor or more likely an online platform. When a consumer unwittingly purchases a TV from what he believes is an established Japanese brand for example, but it turns out that it was actually made somewhere else like China, in my opinion this is unethical.

Sadly in the world we live today, ethics in business is rare because it would seem that profitability and the bottom line always take priority.  I often see comments on comments by consumers on websites highlighting these ‘deceptions’ which again I believe in the long run can only damage the retailers reputations in the long run.

Consumers are quick learners and in the long run this widespread practice does nothing to build trust or loyalty between the consumer and retailer.

Finally, I would say that one of the the most important areas major retailers need to do now right now is focus on the customer journey. From the moment they walk into their store to the moment they walk out, the ‘shopping experience’ needs to be engaging and one that ensures the consumer is handled in the right way ensuring a sale rather than a missed opportunity by the end of the visit.