Just as retail stores constantly change their display windows to remain fresh to the consumer’s eye, so too is the retail industry undergoing constant adaptation to a changing and sometimes hostile world. Whether it’s the death of shopping malls, the rapid growth of direct-to-consumer (D2C) businesses, or consumers’ obsession with 24/7 access to products and/or companies, very little in retail is what it used to be. Which begs the question: What is the future of retail?
I believe, and have said in the past, the future of retail looks a whole lot like…well, retail! Those who argue that brick-and-mortar shops no longer exist, and have been replaced by something else, are incorrect. Not only are the structures still there, but they are in more places and from more brands than ever before. Customers can still drive to a store, wait in line to pay and leave with a newly purchased, handpicked item.
So while the future of retail in many ways resembles what it looks like today from the outside, it is really what is inside that counts.
The basis of almost all innovation is, of course, technology. Some of these ‘fixes’ are painfully basic, such as proper A/C flow and convenient payment solutions. Others simplify a customer’s shopping experience, such as SmartMirrors, allowing customers to see how a particular makeup would look on them via Augmented Reality, or dressing rooms that are already stocked with clothes a customer expressed interest in ahead of time. Taking advantage of the variety of increasingly connected technology that consumers have at their fingertips, many retailers are able to communicate with people directly via personalized messages across channels both in and out of the store.
It is this technology-driven personalization — via access to data such as connecting consumer databases, app profiles, past purchases, and opt-in loyalty programs — that is helping to shape everything from the layout of the in-store experience to the selection of products on display.
While technology does simplify shopping, it’s not just convenience that people are looking for. Many consumers want experiences, basing their loyalty on how a brand makes them feel or what a brand offers that is distinctly unique from any competitor.
For example, when digital beauty startup Glossier opened its first Los Angeles retail store, it designed every facet of the shop for an always-Instagramming cult following. Glossier connected itself to the residents of LA by creating a ’selfie canyon’ that was further amplified by the creation of the hashtag #glossiercanyon. This immersive room features real-life sounds from the desert and day-to evening lighting, offering consumers a chance to experience something unique and functional for themselves — and their social content — within the retail environment.
Even those brands that consider themselves traditional are quickly understanding the power of technology and experience. American Girl, the classic doll company, revamped its flagship NYC store last year to offer interactive experiences such as a Girl-and-Doll Salon (with appointments for hair styling, manicures and ear piercings), design studios, content hub, party café, and more. The iconic Tiffany & Co. turned the 4th floor of its flagship New York City store into a Blue Box Café that turned a visit to the store into a full-day event rather than just a shopping trip.
These brands not only provide consumers the chance to more deeply engage with their products and services, but are doing so in a way that provides a reason for people to leave home and seek out the physical location. Today’s brick-and-mortar isn’t simply a showroom for your wares. It’s an opportunity to stand out in a sea of sameness while standing up to the onslaught of incoming competition vying for consumer attention (ironically, that includes many D2C and other e-Commerce-born brands that are harnessing the power of a physical presence). They know that retail is more than simply stocking the show floor and manning the cash register.
Each time that customer enters your physical store, they’re seeking out validation as to why they selected you and how you can support them on their journey. Just as we were taught as children, it is what’s on the inside that counts. Brands and retailers that wake up and realize that retail spaces are in fact alive and well will be the ones to survive this era of upheaval.
Whitney Fishman Zember is Managing Partner, Innovation & Consumer Technology at Wavemaker. She earned her place on Forbes' 30 Under 30 List in 2013 for her role leading the Innovation & Consumer Technology team at WPP’s MEC, one of the world’s largest media agency networks (currently known as Wavemaker). Today she is responsible for helping the agency and its clients understand the role of technology in driving consumer behavior, uncovering opportunities for brands to connect with audiences in meaningful ways. Her work has also earned her recognition as an Innovator of the Year by the Internationalist in 2016. Since joining the agency in 2013, Zember has introduced new client learning and communication tools, created an agency-wide 'Project Innovation’ initiative, revamped its thought leadership program, and architected a Start-up Management curriculum that provides a direct connection to the growing startup community.