Future forecast: Stores of the future

James Breaks, associate design director at rpa:group and Tim Manning, experience director at Swarm Group, discuss stores of the future and where technology fits in.

Consultants and clients are coming to accept that the store of the future should deliver a rounded experience, meeting the aspirational needs of ever more demanding shopper generations by combining prescient consumer insight with customisation and personalisation.

There are a lot of great companies out there blazing a trail of disruptive experiences such as Adidas’ Knit for You, but for those still searching for answers it will always help to take stock of, and draw upon, what they already really know.

Customers fundamentally want to be loved and to have their needs met. However, the terms of engagement have changed. Now, technology has significantly fuelled change and to truly comprehend its impact we need to fully understand the ‘modern transaction’. No longer linear and much more than a tap, a swipe, or even a good old-fashioned ‘ker-ching!’ the new format transaction has the potential to permeate our very lives, both consciously and subconsciously.
Transactions are now defined by a meeting of hearts and minds in pursuit of an all-important lasting impression. This throws up all sorts of questions for retailers. When it comes to brand personality and digital engagement should the CTO really be designing content? Should marketing really be specifying hardware? Should retail estates be really integrating UX?

From my own consultancy experience, meeting rooms are still full of nervous shuffling and confused pointing when the question comes up as to who is driving the digital agenda.
It’s clearly a problem that some of the biggest companies are struggling with on a daily basis. In his lecture at the British Retail Consortium, Sebastian James, CEO of Dixons Carphone, implied that the answer was ‘none of the above’, and prophesied that it’s going to be the coders, the PhD data and maths graduates that are the 'gatekeepers' of the retail revolution.
We are already starting to see this model with companies such as Farfetch and its visionary CEO Jose Neves. The Farfetch website uses a beautifully curated ‘boutique’ front end, helping luxury fashion brands sell their product across the globe, but the truly clever stuff is in the tech-fuelled integration, that is driving efficiency behind the scenes within sourcing and fulfillment.
So far so good, but with true insight, Neves recognises that the tactile nature of fashion retail responds to the psychological needs of customers and reinforces the importance of physical experiences. So, not content with merely creating a standard store, Farfetch has created their own flexible, physical platform for selling. The Farfetch OS concept store is a ‘plug and play’ brand showroom overflowing with tech but crucially it’s the successful integration and application of the experience that creates parity with the brand’s online presence.
Strategic planning for the Store of The Future is vital, but almost more important is to acknowledge that shop staff are the most effective ambassadors for brands and possibly their most under-utilised assets. At this year’s Euroshop, there was a lot of talk about replacing shop staff with tech, ranging from smartphones to robots.  

However, in much the same way that the ‘death of the high street’ signalled the need to disrupt and evolve, the same applies to the role of shop staff.  They provide vital human engagement within the brand experience and act in harmony with technology, to provide the most effective experiences.

Gone are the days of simply regurgitating the same old corporate melodies, staff are now mixing their own beats and generating something creative, personalised and more than the sum of its parts. Runners Point is a great example of this critical human involvement. Foot Locker’s technical running brand incorporates state-of-the art gait analysis with targeted product selection, localised running maps, run club space and in-store integration with the running app – all of which would be rendered utterly redundant without the running fanatics that form the staff base. Side-by-side selling and personal engagement reinforce retail storytelling at the most fundamental human level; if technology adds to that, even better.
So, giving your brand a human face is vital, but more than ever these days we are being asked what the ROI is, not only on consultancy but also on a host of other factors, including UX.  Commerciality of course is still all about the money, but how do we measure return on investment in digital integration?
Clients are obviously worried about technology’s front-end costs. 'Screens are SO expensive' is the common complaint I hear when discussing digital engagement strategies. Well, we know that good quality screens can be expensive, but if your all-encompassing idea for digital engagement is simply bombarding your customer with recycled images, you seriously need to rediscover your brand. Screens are merely a vessel for delivering the message, rather than being the message itself.
Great engagement using technology is a two-way transaction, and one of those ways needs to be human. This is why Amazon Go gets it right. Despite the remove-all of checkout personnel, the single most human face of any retail environment, the brand delivers on its key values: ease, choice, and fulfillment supported by digital integration and intuitive interface. The concept fulfills brand expectations, pre-serves authenticity and retains customer trust, and most importantly, its loyalty.
Brands like Farfetch and Amazon Go have demonstrated that the hardware, software and the intellect already exist to profile, target, sell and follow-up. Understanding that the tools exist allows brands to look within, and decide how best to apply them.

Big Data can pinpoint a single customer’s needs, identify mass retail trends and recommend smart ways to digitally engage with them. Concurrently, it can also suggest when they want physical and mental space to breathe. Sports apparel stores with dedicated yoga studios and digital-detox coffee shops without Wi-Fi – all these disruptive spaces actually strengthen brand perception within a focused marketing strategy, and surely this is worth more than a couple of screens?
Once we’ve considered these things, where does that leave us? It’s a fair assumption that joined up thinking is easy, but joined up action is where the real challenge exists. Proliferation of technology has democratised both big and small business, especially in data exchange, transaction enablement and fulfillment. Small busy-nesses and start-ups can now compete on the same terms as retail giants. Both big and small businesses have to think cleverly about how they differentiate themselves, and it’s not about how big your bells and whistles are – it’s all about engagement.
We all need to start filling our creative retail souls again, and it’s an undeniable fact that technology will help get us there. However, both empathy and electronics seem to be a difficult sell for retailers and their consultants, especially when they address the customer’s fundamental physical and psychological needs.

Understanding and reflecting your customer’s needs goes a long long way and I would advise brands not to be afraid to fail in their use of technology as every genuine attempt at authentic customer engagement has a value, even in failure. Sure, metrics can be studied, lessons learnt, strategies adjusted, but most importantly remember that with brand loyalty, your customers will forgive. Not only will they forgive, but will also identify with that human quality of the brand and respond with strengthened perception.

Technology is a vital part of every retail brand’s progress and development. However, as a brand owner you must always maintain a visible and tangible human perspective. When you are addressing the use of technology, both on and offline, don’t feel that you have to aim for a belt and braces revolution when in fact evolution will do nicely. Just be mindful not to lock out the very people that your brand’s existence depends upon – in fact they are its very lifeblood – the staff and the customers.



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