As Ikea starts construction of its 22nd UK store, country retail manager Gillian Drakeford says the future of the physical store will extend far beyond a transactional experience.

With the growing popularity of online shopping, it’s unsurprising that the role of the physical store is changing.

The dominance of online sales may make some people question the future of physical stores, both out of town and on our high streets – particularly with big online retail moments such as Black Friday.

However, the rise of the digital shopper doesn’t necessarily signal a decline in the importance of bricks-and-mortar stores. Rather it signifies a shift in the importance of physical stores to complement and cater to different consumer needs.

At Ikea, we see the changing role of the store as an exciting challenge.

We have ambitious expansion plans and continue to invest in the physical store. Last week, we started construction of Ikea Greenwich, which is due to open before the end of 2018 and will offer a more social shopping experience.

A meeting point for inspiration

Retailers globally are experimenting with innovative automation to keep their stores relevant.

Many UK retailers are substituting human cashiers with self-check-out systems, while American DIY store Lowe’s recently introduced the Lowebot – a walking, talking shopping assistant and information desk.

Despite these innovations, the importance of human interaction is an integral part of the in-store experience.

With UK productivity a hot topic at the moment, automation can be used to assist retailers in curating a modern retail experience, although this should not come at the expense of face-to-face interactions between people.

In order for stores to keep their place in the customer journey, they shouldn’t just be designed for convenience, but to provide inspiration.

At Ikea, instead of viewing automation as a future replacement to people, we view it as a helpful tool to ensure more people will be available to meet, help and inspire our customers on the shop floor.

Our co-workers are central to our aims of creating a brilliant customer experience.

While we are not afraid to embrace innovation, we are unwilling to sacrifice our belief in the importance of human expertise. The decisions we make about our homes are deeply personal and the ability to connect with someone who understands our needs cannot be underestimated.

More than just a shop

This year, Ikea UK experienced its sixth consecutive year of growth, with more than 57 million people visiting our stores last year.

While websites undeniably make certain aspects of the shopping experience more convenient, we know there’s nothing quite like seeing and touching a product before you buy it.

“For some, the Ikea store can still be quite a single-purpose, transactional place where furniture is collected before it’s taken home to be built. We are committed to shifting this perception”

I’ll never forget the first time I met Ingvar Kamprad – Ikea’s founder – as a young 21-year-old working in the Market Hall at the Warrington store. He taught me the importance of displaying napkins in a way that customers could touch and feel them.

Consumers are no longer seeking a destination with the sole purpose of shopping in mind.

With some retailers now offering experiences, ranging from workshops to entertainment, stores are becoming both a social and lifestyle experience.

For some, the Ikea store can still be quite a single-purpose, transactional place where furniture is collected before it’s taken home to be built. We are committed to shifting this perception – something that is particularly evident in our plans for Ikea Greenwich.

Ikea Greenwich has been designed specifically with Londoners in mind, with many people living in smaller homes and having little to no outdoor space.

What’s more, we noticed that the local community was lacking a communal space to meet, socialise, share and learn, and we are now building the store to meet these needs accordingly. Our aim is for Ikea Greenwich to function as a community hub as well as a shop.

In addition to offering free green space and communal relaxation areas, the store will provide bookable event areas and shared spaces for local groups, members of the public and co-workers to enjoy.

Diversifying the role of the store, not eliminating it, is the key to the future of retail.

By offering more than a shopping experience and identifying the needs of customers and residents in the local area, retailers can become true partners in their communities and give back in a way that extends beyond the transactional.

Gillian Drakeford is country retail manager at Ikea UK

Ikea Gillian Drakeford