The retail sphere has been the focus for exciting design and technological advances in recent years. Retailers are understanding that shops need to be a physical expression of what they stand for and are using design to bring their brands to life.
The end results are the many permutations of a customer driven strategy, including “neighbourhood” events and work from local artists in Adidas Originals stores; an eco “Spa” in the Oxford Street flagship of cosmetic brand Lush; interactive maps inspiring holidaymakers in travel specialist Thomson; the ability to shop directly from the Instagram feed of frame specialist SimplyFramed.com and virtual reality headsets that give consumer’s a Fashion Week front row feel in TopShop.
To be successful within the fiercely competitive retail sector, businesses need to continually innovate and evolve. “A question that retailers are going to increasingly need to ask is about the re-imagining of what value the retail experience has and how that sits in society,” says IBM Interactive Experience, Global, executive partner Amanda Gosling.
We see trends towards immersive retail, where product is tightly curated and imaginatively marketed to engage and entertain customers in-store. Alongside this, retailers are upping their game with multi-channel retail design, providing a seamless, joyful experience of their brand. Then, within the digital retail sphere, there are exciting developments in the route to market, providing boutiques and micro businesses with new places to flourish.
The convenience and relative value of shopping online raises the bar for what retailers can and should offer in-store. One key aspect of the different role the bricks and mortar shop needs to play is allowing the consumer to touch, feel and interact with the brand’s products and services. With installations, events, cutting edge technological interactions or exceptional service, the store becomes a destination for more than just shopping. “You have digital online shopping experiences becoming both enjoyable and incredibly functional and that then puts pressure on the physical “real world” shopping to adapt accordingly,” says Guardian News and Media Group video strategist Anna Bateson.
In a recent Insight report, retail design specialist Caulder Moore suggests that the experience and entertainment within the store environment is part of a growing trend for a sensory retail design that is key to conveying brand essence to the consumer and demonstrating how it relates to their lifestyle.
“Consumers want the ability to test and trial, research and physically examine the goods and services they are intending to buy,” says Barclays process improvement director for premier banking Clive Grinyer. “Brands are understanding that there are different values at play here, things you can do at home that you can’t do in the store and vice versa.”
US, high-end home retailer Pirch maximises the role of the store space in the digital era. From its Manhattan showroom it lets customers try out all the merchandise in surroundings that look like a salubrious home. This includes cooking alongside a chef in a top of the range kitchen, disrobing to test up to 30 technologically-advanced showerhead designs, or wallowing in a mud bath.
On arrival, customers are greeted with a coffee and given free rein for a tactile exploration of its luxury merchandise – an engaging experience that simultaneously softens and justifies the 10,000 dollar plus price tags of much of the merchandise. If they choose to, customers can enter a “dream room” to meet with a designer and plan their home interior purchases.
The merging of the digital and the physical is common to all areas of life and shopping is no exception. It puts pressure on retail to deliver their brand values consistently across touchpoints. A recent report by retail specialist Verdict finds that 89% of all UK retail sales touch a physical store and reaffirms the need for retailers to operate both expertly.
“You need to have the flagship stores to really communicate the brand and showcase things to the best effect, you need online to give people a sense of selection and accessibility and you also need accessibility in terms of picking this purchase up, whether it is drones delivering it to them or collection from around the corner,” explains Mat Hunter, director of strategy at the Central Research Laboratory. “This means we are stitching together a huge number of components…and that is exactly where design really matters.”
A successful retailer brings design to work to provide a cohesive and engaging customer experience across channels. “Making the experience in the physical world echo the one in the digital world and vice versa is where you begin to see the advances and design starting to unpick where you begin to deliver that as a vision,” agrees Guardian News & Media’s Anna Bateson. “It is enabled by technology but thought through as a user-focused design challenge.”
Consistency is therefore critical in unifying the customer experience across channels. Retailers leading the way in this sphere are designing a holistic user experience of the brand. Not only does a customer require a consistency across channels but the ability to start a purchase in one channel and complete it in another.
The purchase journey for a customer at an Apple Store – whether online, in-store or a combination of the two – is smoothly accomplished and satisfying. Apple customers move seamlessly from interacting with the brand via app to website to in-store. For example, through booking appointments online for the in-store ‘Genius Bar’ service or, when their mobile device senses they are near the store, getting a very useful click and collect alert with the relevant details to present to a sales assistant.
New online routes to market
Getting products and services exposed to a wider audience is the archetypal challenge of the small retailer. Digital design has a role to play here though and online marketplaces such as NotOnTheHighStreet.com, which smooths the way to market for small brands, or Outgrow.me, which is specifically designed to showcase successfully crowdfunded designs, are emerging. Sites like these are changing the goal posts for micro businesses.
The world’s largest online retailer is also onboard with this concept, having recently given micro businesses a shop window via its Amazon Launchpad site. This portal is intended as a vehicle to sell and promote products from startups. Launchpad brands – whizzy ideas for gadgets, toys, homewares and more – are also sold through Amazon’s main website and are eligible for Amazon Prime’s two-day delivery service. This initiative sees Amazon working with a range of venture capital businesses, crowdfunders and accelerators and Launchpad success stories include smart luggage company Bluesmart and Whistle, a GPS pet tracking device.
“Amazon Launchpad is a showcase for new products – they may have been funded by a kickstarter or something similar – and Amazon is there to help smooth out that sales experience and potentially support customer service,” says Mat Hunter, director of strategy at the Central Research Laboratory. “It is exciting that it is leveling the playing field and you can have micro businesses and mega businesses together in the same place.”