How can retailers make people put down their smartphones and go shopping? Gemma Goldfingle investigates the latest developments in experiential retail
Online is increasingly becoming the go-to for shoppers looking for everything from food to fashion. But that doesn’t mean the humble shop is redundant.
If retailers are to entice people to put down their mobiles and get off the sofa to visit a store, that store has to be special.
This has contributed to experiential becoming the new buzzword in retail. Shoppers no longer go to stores just to buy stuff, they expect to be entertained.
Adam Shilton, associate director at design firm HMKM, says: “We’ve been bandying the phrase experiential about for a number of years but now the concept is breaking through to the public psyche.
“People expect to be entertained in store. Online is more commodity driven. You go on Amazon to buy stuff, you’re less inclined to have an experience.”
One retailer that has put experiential retail at the heart of its stores is John Lewis.
The department store chain, which is on track to make half of its sales from online by 2020, seeks to entertain and surprise people in its stores, as demonstrated through its National Treasures campaign this summer.
Celebrating Britain’s favourite things, from 99 ice creams to the Queen, the campaign featured a full programme of events ranging from gardening clubs to tea parties.
John Lewis director of customer experience Peter Cross says: “We’ve extended the power of the brand into experiences.”
The National Treasures theme, which ran from April to August, was clear to see in John Lewis’ store windows, which used 2D, cartoon-style animated figures to display the classic British scene of people queuing up for 99s in front of a pier.
The cartoon figures, the work of British illustrator Paul Thurlby, were also put to good use inside John Lewis’ stores. They were suspended across the atrium and peppered around various departments.
“Partners are going to be trained through the lens of experience”
Peter Cross, John Lewis
Cross says John Lewis is taking experiential retail to a new level with the opening of its Oxford store in October.
The retailer intends to run an event on every trading day of the year, and has hired its first-ever brand experience manager for the store.
John Lewis will also send its Oxford store staff to theatre school before they join, to support its efforts.
“Partners are going to be trained through the lens of experience. Oxford is a whole new level for experiential retail and fully showcases our services,” says Cross.
A compelling experience
But how are retailers creating that experience? Lights, sounds and visual merchandising all have a part in creating a compelling in-store experience, but it’s technology that is playing an increasingly central role.
Suptasree Roy, associate partner at digital transformation agency TH_NK, says there is an increasing trend of blending the physical and digital in store.
Burberry’s Regent Street flagship is a case in point. The store features the world’s largest digital screen, from which Burberry streams both promotional content and its catwalk shows live.
Each product has an RFID tag that triggers content about it to appear on the mirrors in the fitting room as the shopper enters.
It’s a similar story at fashion etailer Farfetch. It also uses RFID at its recently unveiled store of the future, which strives to seamlessly merge physical and digital.
The store’s fitting room mirror can display matching items to the clothing being tried on, as well as goods the customer has previously purchased at Farfetch.
If the shopper wants another size while they are in the dressing room, they can touch a button on the screen and a sales assistant will be alerted on their app.
The shopper can also pay via the mirror, with methods such as ApplePay offered.
Farfetch’s smart mirror shows how technology can help make the shopping experience easier. However, Shilton says technology can also add drama to stores.
HMKM worked on a project with luxury department store Tryano’s Abu Dhabi shop in Yas Mall, where it installed an interactive facade.
The store is based on a ‘garden of the imagination’ concept that changes with the seasons and the screens allow the store exterior to blossom with virtual foliage each day
The store is based on a ‘garden of the imagination’ concept that changes with the seasons and the screens allow the store exterior to blossom with virtual foliage each day.
At the start of the journey, the customer walks through a grand reception hall with autumnal coloured marble flooring and timber-clad columns towards the central atrium, which is flooded with natural light.
On the first floor is a winter-inspired beauty space, where shards of icy mirror and crackled glass cling to the walls.
This gives way to the handbag area, which takes its cue from spring, with soft rugs and hues of rose, lilac and lavender. The second floor houses childrenswear, which uses vibrant summertime colours with a fairytale mirrored carousel, crowned with a mirrored canopy, forming the centrepiece.
The shop offers all manner of personal services, including a bag spa for old purses in need of repair, or new ones in need of a spot of monogramming.
There’s also a children’s activity centre, a design consultant for nursery decoration advice and a stroller spa, where you can roll up with your pram and have it cleaned.
Using tech in store
Tryano is a good example of technology working hand-in-hand with traditional design elements to enhance and work on a theme.
Shilton says too much technology can be off-putting to some shoppers. “It’s got to be at the right level for your customer and brand. Technology should never be intrusive or overwhelming. It’s all about relevance,” he says.
“Retailers are hopefully more aware of what’s expected of technology in store. It needs to harness the imagination and can make sure customers see something new every time they are in store.”
Cross agrees. “Technology is a brilliant enabler. However, people yearn to interact, to smell, feel and be sociable,” he says.
One technology that is being dabbled with in store is virtual reality (VR).
“Retailers are hopefully more aware of what’s expected of technology in store. It needs to harness the imagination and can make sure customers see something new every time they are in store”
Adam Shilton, HMKM
Fashion retailer Topshop has experimented with VR, most recently at its Oxford Street store, where this summer shoppers were able to virtually race down a giant looping water slide.
‘Splash at Topshop’ was located in the store windows as part of its “interactive pool scene”, designed to mark the start of summer.
Users started their journey on a giant inflatable before being plunged into a virtual Oxford Street via the blue slide.
The VR experience also had a branded Snapchat lens, which again had a summer aquatic theme. In a nod to the importance of smell, Topshop pumped in the scent of sunscreen throughout the London store and hosted a number of summer-themed pop-ups, such as an ice cream van.
When the VR campaign launched, Sheena Sauvaire, global marketing and communications director at Topshop, said: “As VR technology continues to advance, our desire was to blend it with retail theatre to create an immersive and shareable experience for our consumers, as a fun way to celebrate the start of summer.”
This is not the first time Topshop has dabbled with VR. To coincide with its London Fashion Week show for autumn winter 2014, shoppers at its Oxford Street store could wear a headset and be transported to the front row.
John-Michael O’Sullivan, head of creative at HMKM, says the initiative turned the VR into the event, rather than the catwalk. “People were looking at people looking at the catwalk,” he says.
However, experts remain dubious about the use of VR in its current form. Roy says: “A lot of retailers have introduced VR but it’s quite gimmicky. It’s a big step forward until we live in a virtual reality world.”
John Lewis has also dabbled with VR technology. To coincide with its Buster the Boxer Christmas advert last year it had a VR experience at its Oxford Street store.
The retailer set up a garden-themed area complete with a virtual trampoline. Shoppers donned an Oculus Rift headset, which is kitted out with a Leap Motion detector, and the wearer could control the two foxes, badger, hedgehog and squirrel that appear in the ad.
Cross admits that VR is not necessarily the most visually appealing feature in store.
“The challenge is to set it up right as it can be a solitary experience. It’s largely someone sitting with a headset on, but when it’s done well it can create a more immersive experience.”
Cross believes we are in the foothills of the VR mountain and the technology will take off in store.
Roy agrees: “It gets people into store and drives excitement. But it’s important to enhance what we’re already doing.”
However, it is augmented reality (AR) that Roy is getting most excited about.
“AR is a fantastic merging of physical and digital and feels like the right balance”
Suptasree Roy, TH_NK
Ikea, which has used AR in its catalogues for some time, is bringing the technology into its stores. The furniture giant is working on an app that enables customers to take photos of their homes and then use the technology in store to place Ikea products wherever they want them in their home.
Shoppers will be able to see what a sofa would look like in a living room and place it in the exact position desired.
Roy says: “AR is really exciting and a fantastic merging of physical and digital and feels like the right balance.
“People want product in front of them. That behaviour is here to stay but tech is embedded in all our lives now.”
With modern day consumers shopping across physical and digital, it is only right that the store environment mirrors this trend.
Etailers’ merchandising triumphs
Retailers with digital roots such as Farfetch are a rich source of innovation in store design, says Suptasree Roy, associate partner at digital transformation agency TH_NK.
However, this innovation is not always tech-related.
Fashion retailer Missguided opened its first store late last year at Westfield Stratford.
Many expected it to be peppered with the technology with which its millennial audience are so familiar. The shop wowed, however, because of its good old-fashioned visual merchandising.
The store is jam-packed full of design features, all in bubble-gum pink, including a pick-up truck with monster wheels (pictured), banknotes suspended from the ceiling, flamingos and unicorn-headed mannequins.
Meanwhile the walls are emblazoned with motifs such as “make the naughty list this year” and “dresses worth shaving your legs for”.
Shilton says that storytelling in store is a critical element of engaging shops, something at which Missguided clearly excels.
“It’s about getting the customer through the door and experiencing the brand,” says Shilton.
He highlights online mattress retailer Casper’s pop-up sleep pods as a good example of innovative physical space.
As part of its Sleep Tour this summer, Casper hit the road in a branded van kitted out with mattresses, sheets and pillows.
Guests were immersed in a bedroom environment using ambient lighting and privacy blinds. They could pick up the bedside phone and hear a bedtime story and wake up to treats and snacks.
The pods are more than a clever marketing ploy says Shilton, who says Casper provides a creative, home-like environment for shoppers to experience its products.
This feature appears in Retail Week’s Interiors supplement, out this month. Read the supplement in full here.