Opinion: Is retail ready?

I have been intrigued by the future of the bricks-and-mortar retail experience since 1996. While in my first job at Dalziel & Pow I did a presentation about how all of us ‘interior designers’ were going to be out of a job in five years because of internet shopping. Well, I didn’t really believe it then, but I was being derisive to inspire some debate. Now 20 years later and I’m still on the same subject but with a little more of an insightful point of view. I find myself asking, ‘Is retail ready for the future?’

As an interior designer who specialises in the luxury retail sector, I have a passion for beautiful materials, poetic spaces, and considered detailing. Also, I’m incredibly fascinated by technology (ever since I first tried virtual reality at the Trocadero on Piccadilly in 1995).

Changing Times

Right now I can see the change that is happening to the retail industry. By my calculations, we will see sales online and in-store reaching a tipping point by the first quarter of 2020. Bearing in mind that currently 80 per cent of all sales in the UK go through traditional bricks-and-mortar stores, this is a swift change. This will have a profound effect on retailers’ business strategies.

The change is being driven by the consumer, and the desire for convenience. As we all know, this shift in power from brand to the consumer is being accommodated by the internet and online sales, enabling consumers to purchase more conveniently. But, when you look at the retail market, we currently have no examples of the next generation of retail business model that connects the online with the in-store, meaningfully.

Sweet Shop

Back in 2011, when we were approached by The Future Laboratory for London Design Festival to come up with an installation in the courtyard of their offices, I proposed a ‘Sweet Shop’ which was an experiment to explore the idea of what an online experience would be like in a physical store. Imagine an experiential retail space that could recognise you on approach, monitor your actions and build a profile on you, through your intuitive actions in space. And then use this information live to evolve your experience. We created a consumer journey that would not only define you, but your perfect sweet. This first venture into what we are calling ‘experiential retail’ was a poetic one. Selfridges visited the experience and invited us to take the ‘experiment’ into commercial practice, and we created the Fragrance Lab in 2015 in partnership with The Future Laboratory. This project proved that the consumer did have an appetite for ‘experiential retail’ (it took approx. 200k visitors in just six weeks).

Back in time

If we look back at luxury retail in 1910, the upper class were offered an exclusive personal service, through a curated product presentation, and trusted sales associates. Luxury has tracking and profiling consumers to recognise their preferences, to use this insight to empower staff, and also to create intelligent responsive retail store environments.

Experiential Retail

We are referring to this new retail model as ‘experiential retail’. A term that has been over used, but in its definition very simple. If we look back to an article written in 1982 by Professor Morris B. Holbrook called, ‘The Experiential Aspects of Consumption’, it states that ‘an experiential outlook must involve subjects in consumption-like experiences, based on real or at least realistic product samples’. So, what he is saying is that experiential retail is about being able to play with the product.

Campaign Theatre

I decided I wanted to take this idea further, and in October we launched a new venture called Campaign Theatre. This new venture is an experiential think tank to create a commercial showcase for the ‘experiential retail’ store model. Over the next 12 months we will be conducting a series of experiments to test and resolve the idea. We will be answering the following questions:

• How to make the in-store experience relevant?
• How to design an ephemeral store space?
• What does a seamless omnichannel feel like for the consumer?
• How to technically deliver a connected store?
• How to transition to a new retail business model?

Campaign Theatre looks to challenge how to make the built retail environment relevant again, seamlessly connected with the online, and not only an enjoyable customer experience but also an intelligent one. So, we are pushing to design an experiential retail model, but will it be too late? We plan to launch the first Campaign Theatre consumer facing store in 2018. Watch this space.


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