Retail transformation can be slow
Retail is known for being fast-paced. Those in the sector are highly adept at delivering products in line with evolving trends and shopper demands – ‘fast fashion’ says it all. When it comes to in-store transformation, slow is also usually seen as negative. Throughout my 25-year career, I have seen for myself the desire that exists among retailers to be able to accelerate the pace of change and improve retail performance, in a way that has an immediate impact.
But now, an interesting transformation is starting to take place in our stores that is altogether slower. Most people are now familiar with the Danish concept of ‘hygge’, which evokes images of cosy evenings spent with loved ones, flickering candles, warm drinks and soft knitwear. It is all about taking a step back and enjoying the simple pleasures, and as our lives become more frantic, it’s easy to understand the appeal.
Before hygge came slow journalism, food and fashion movements, and it seems that the time might have come to coin the phrase ‘slow retail’. All of these ideas involve taking a more considered approach, with a focus on quality rather than speed. It is something that has certainly been strengthened by the popularity of mindfulness, which teaches the importance of living in the moment and being conscious of our thoughts and actions.
There are some good examples of retailers already putting these ideas into practice, and it should come as no surprise that two of these, the homeware brands Tiger and Søstrene Grene, come from Denmark. Unlike most retailers, neither sell online, focusing instead on enticing people into store with the regular arrival of interesting and reasonably-priced products. The shop floors are designed so that customers are guided logically from one range to another, and by slowing down the pace, they are invited to immerse themselves in a distinctly Scandinavian way of living.
Finland also has its own take on hygge and my recent visit to Helsinki shone a light on how its retail landscape differs to our own. As you would expect, the city is home to major brands like Zara and H&M, but they are a relatively recent addition. In fact, the city is alive with home-grown talent and stores that celebrate the Nordic aesthetic, for instance, the iconic ceramic brand Iittala. Here, the minimal layout and use of natural materials create a feeling of space and timelessness, and is the ideal way to showcase the products on sale.
More generally, I found that Helsinki’s stores are designed to appeal to the senses, and leave a long-lasting impression of being safe, welcoming and soft. Small touches, such as lit candles by the door along with free coffee and water, perfectly encapsulate the spirit of hygge and cost little to implement. This is all reinforced by the feeling of empathy and sincerity you get from the store assistants, who are happy to spend time speaking to customers and helping them to find what they want.
It is interesting to see that shops in Helsinki do not open until 11am and close at 3pm on a Saturday, with just a handful opening on Sundays. Once again, this aligns nicely with hygge, and perhaps underlines the value Finns place on spending time with their friends and family rather than shopping. Naturally, it is very different to the UK where shopping is a favourite weekend past-time and there have been many calls to relax the Sunday trading laws.
Nevertheless, there are signs that UK retailers may be starting to adopt a slower way of shopping. Aside from the popularity of hygge, which could well wane in the not-too-distant future, there are more practical concerns such as an ageing population.
Tesco, for instance, recently introduced a pilot scheme in Scotland for vulnerable customers, like the elderly, who may need more time at the check-out. It follows other initiatives like the one at Toys R Us, where families will find autism-friendly events for children who prefer a calm setting, and Asda, which has trialled ‘quiet nights’ aimed at anyone who feels unsettled by background noise or sudden loud announcements. Working in partnership with well-known charities, these retailers are promoting the kind of empathy seen in Finland and also helping to improve people’s perceptions of the brand.
However, it is not just those who are vulnerable who benefit from this slower pace: sometimes we all appreciate a little more time to look around without pressure. There are also clear commercial benefits to creating a more sedate shopping experience, as casual browsers are converted to buyers. It is interesting to note that, as with driving, fast or slow music can affect a shopper’s mood and also speed up, or slow down, their experience in store. A simple change in music genre could be one of the most effective ways of encouraging people to linger for longer.
All this contrasts starkly with the turbo-charged style of retail that we have become used to in recent years. It is something that can be seen in the rise of click-and-collect services, as time-pressed shoppers want to simply dash in and pick up their parcel, rather than browse or make additional purchases. The danger though, is that brands make the experience a little too efficient, leaving no time to build lasting relationships.
As a shopper, if you want an experience that is all about the functional and the fast transaction, online is the place. The physical space provides retailers with an opportunity to let shoppers experience something different. Hygge may be the word of the moment, but brands have been experimenting with ‘retail theatre’ for many years now. Even eBay now has regular pop-ups, and last Christmas its central London store was created around the theme of thoughtful giving. A key feature was the use of facial coding technology and ambient biometric sensors to help shoppers find the gifts they connected to emotionally.
If the slow food and journalism movements are anything to go by, the number of shoppers who may warm to the idea of slow retail could soon grow, increasing the need for retailers to explore ways to make their in-store experiences less hurried. Those that are quick to respond, however, should remember one thing: doing so should not come at the expense of convenience and efficiency. If the store layout and navigation are illogical, products are not on the shelves, waiting times are long and staff members are not on hand to deal with enquiries, even slow retail will fast become frustrating and stressful.