The global retail market has never been so challenging as changing customer behaviour and political and economic uncertainties are hitting many markets around the world.
In times of change and upheaval, there can be opportunities. Opportunities to exploit the uncertainty with reassurance or inspiration. Reassuring the cautious consumer by building their trust and confidence. Inspiring the jaded consumer with your agility and expression.
Our home market in the UK has been going through such a dramatic shift. We have learned so much over the last decade, and that knowledge and experience has enabled us to advise others whose markets are less mature in navigating a way through the potential shift they are about to experience in the coming years.
Eight years ago, many of our clients were proud to announce that their Web sales totaled the equivalent of one shop, saying it now merited further support in building that revenue stream. Now those clients, and I can specifically think of three key examples, are all stating that their Web offer is now exceeding the turnover of all their stores combined. In some cases with a store portfolio of hundreds, not just one or two outlets.
In the last eight years then, the role of the store has changed dramatically. Good store design supports the total proposition; it creates an immersive experience, but is quite relaxed in its role. It's quite acceptable for a shopper to leave a store without a purchase, assuming they are happy and engaged by what they saw and may well visit the brand’s website that same evening to buy something that caught their eye earlier. Customers see you as one brand, online and in-store.
So, what can the in-store experience offer to ensure its relevance in the future?
Convenience vs Experience
Something to do not just something to buy. It is no longer good enough to present an open stockroom - online gives me access to the biggest stockroom in the world. A store needs to do what the web and digital media cannot.
A store needs to have a narrative, a point of view, a reason to be there. It could be convenience, it could be experience. There is merit in being super local, in giving people what they need when they need it, the ultimate convenience. But there is more reward in giving people something more, something they couldn’t get from the internet.
Amazon, or your local equivalent, can’t give me a vaccination. It can’t give me the room to frame a family portrait, it can’t let me sit in that new car, it can’t let me smell those 36 fragrances developed with such passion and investment. We need to create experiences that Amazon can’t deliver. We need to do what Amazon cannot do.
Our focus is shifting from density and merchandising, to service and experience. Good retail principles are the backbone of any operation, but the consumer-facing message needs to be more relevant and immersive than ever before.
The openness and creativity of brand expression through the retail space is at an all-time high We are no longer trapped in a minimal or maximal design language, there are no barriers to brand expression, the key factor is authenticity and relevance. Who are you as a brand and who are your audience? Identify your purpose and deliver it in any way you can, using all of the tools of the Experience Designer.
Architecture, communications and digital design all have a role to play in creating great retail - if you can design with all these tools at your disposal, you can create truly emotive and effective results.
Our clients no longer stress about the finish on the floor or the colour of a fixture, they trust we will make the right decisions on their behalf. They do stress about creating the most connected brand experience, telling the most compelling brand stories and engaging the consumers intuitively in digital interactions.
Small thinking big, big thinking small
Our retail landscape is democratising. We are bored with the predictable global brands dominating the market and through changing leasing opportunities, we are seeing the rise of the independent.
Big brands are desperate to appear local and relevant: small independents are desperate to appear global and confident. The resulting mix can be vibrant and fresh. Malls can be rejuvenated, High Streets can turn around their slow decline. There is a need to find solutions for consumer fatigue and the integration of the independent could be a huge step in that direction.
Independents bring the passion and hospitality that a corporate brand can find hard to replicate. We’ve seen exactly this attitude transform two key UK clients this year, one a full-service Health and Beauty offer in rural Ireland and one a Furniture and Lifestyle trader in Scotland. Both have achieved a benchmark in their sector.
Finally, the most important question... how can we future-proof our design concepts to reflect the changing habits of the consumer? Is there a way to make our solutions so flexible that they not only anticipate future shifts in retail but actually create an immersive distinctive experience? When the surest thing is uncertainty, how can we embrace change with in-built flexibility?
This challenge may not only save money but could also save our planet. Sustainable flexible solutions that deliver a longer life for our concepts will ultimately save materials, save waste, save energy. For large space users that have a creative brief to build flex spaces that change with the seasons, we can imagine some very expressive and creative responses. This could be a novel and effective approach to any design challenge as we navigate these times of change and upheaval.
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