The internet, and ecommerce has clearly had a huge impact on consumer shopping habits and their relationships with brands. The ability to buy, and just as easily return, alters the relationship that was once more entrenched by visits in store.
Added to this, the past year has seen the decline and fall of many household names, including Maplin and Toys R Us. House of Fraser announced 30 store closures, and Marks and Spencer, Debenhams, Mothercare, and Carphone Warehouse have been the subject of ominous profit loss reports and quick-step restructuring and branding initiatives. All of this has created an unease and negativity around the future of the high street. However, perhaps it is just further evidence that the high street is, and should be, evolving.
Before online shopping became so omnipotent, the regular high street department store relied and flourished on basic principles of choice, value, convenience and efficient customer service. Ecommerce then arrived, and blew this idea out of the water. They competed aggressively on choice, value, convenience and efficiency.
So what can retailers do about this challenge?
What seems to be separating those brands that are managing to stay relevant, is a willingness to enrich and evolve the physical experience of their brand, through ‘experiential retail’ approaches. The experiential retail movement might be thought of as a new wave of innovative experimentation by retailers that takes their bricks-and-mortar stores beyond being merely a point of transaction. Through experiential approaches, traditional shops are being reconceptualised as hubs for immersive experiences, meeting places for vibrant communities, and even unique event spaces.
As if to underpin the above evidence that despite the remarkable rise of ecommerce, consumers actually crave sensory-rich physical shopping experiences, experiential spaces are not only being embraced by pre-internet established brands. For example, ecommerce giants such as Amazon, realising the value of providing tactile ‘real world’ experiences, are heading in the opposite direction with the establishment of bricks-and-mortar shops. Infact recent research we had commissioned revealed that despite reports of the demise of the high street, when it comes to fashion and beauty people still appreciate the tangible experience of in-store above all other channels. Of respondents, In-store is 60% more popular for fashion shoppers when discovering a new product than the next best discovery channel. And 37% more popular for beauty shoppers.
Some impressive recent examples reflecting this trend, include FarFetch’s new London store, John Lewis’ ‘experience desks’, and Ikea’s Facebook comp to stay the night in one of its vast warehouse outlets with a sleep expert.
The above examples show that in the digital age, those prospering on the high street are the ones brave enough to think outside the conventional box. To create deeper, more imaginative and immersive customer experiences that incentivise people to step away from their laptops and smart devices, and step into a store, where the promise of human-centred interaction, value exchange, community building, or just plain-out fun, awaits them.
Some recent fantastic examples of experiential retail include:
Farfetch’s new London store. Customers can be recognised as soon as they step foot in the store via an app connected to their online shopping account — providing assistants with an instant overview of purchasing history and preferences.
In addition, RFID-enabled clothes rails are able to detect products that interest customers, and have them added them to their online wish list. And touch-screen mirrors enable customers to request alternative sizes, as well as paying up without leaving the dressing room.
A truly innovative example of how the convergence of online and offline can take customer personalisation to the next level.
The high street brand that never puts a foot wrong, John Lewis, recently carried out a revamp of its store design, to include ‘experience desks’, where concierges are on-hand to book special services such as blow dries and manicures for shoppers in-between their retail therapy.
In addition, at their new Cheltenham store, the brand have been trialling a private shopping service that will give customers the shop floor all to themselves (providing your bill tops a cool £10,000, that is) with staff available after normal shopping hours to serve individuals, groups of friends or families.
A great example of a brand using experiential marketing to create one-of-a-kind events. Fulfilling the mundane fantasy of many a flat-pack furniture shopper, Ikea set up a Facebook competition where 100 winners were invited to stay the night in one of its vast warehouse outlets.
Customers were able to luxuriate with massages and salon services, as well as pick out the mattress, sheets and pillows they wanted for a perfect night’s rest. A sleep expert was even on hand with tips for getting a good night’s sleep.
Back in 2014, Topshop ventured into the world of immersive tech to create something a little bit different for London Fashion Week. Shoppers in their flagship Oxford Street store were able to don special headsets and ‘take a seat’ for the retailer’s catwalk show taking place at the Tate Modern — in 360 degree virtual reality.
And more lately, in the spring of 2017 Topshop decided to re-dip their toes in the water (pardon the pun) of experiential playfulness with a virtual reality waterslide ride taking customers on an adrenaline-fuelled journey through Oxford Street.
The emergence of experiential retail highlights how the high street has kept in touch with the impact of ecommerce on the high street. The above examples show that in the digital age, those prospering on the high street are the ones brave enough to think outside the conventional box. Brands are learning to provide engaging, immersive experiences that incentivise customers to head into a store. There they will offer human-centred interaction, value exchange and fun – and a reason to return.