July 2017

The shop is dead, long live the shop

If anyone was in any doubt about it before now, Amazon’s recent purchase of Wholefoods clears up for once and for all that a revolution in retail is upon us.

It’s the clarion cry that bricks and mortar retailing isn’t dead; instead that it’s going through a fascinating metamorphosis.The two worlds of online and on-the-street shopping collide in perfect harmony as we see this colossal web tank, already with more than a toe in the water with Amazon Fresh, crash onto the grocery frontline all guns blazing.

In hindsight you could say the writing has been on the wall for a bit. While the benefits of online are undoubtedly stellar, they’re not universal and arguably fly in the face of what makes us human beings, well, human.

Let’s weigh up a few pros and cons. Picture this… Had a bad day? Then get a quick online high. Credit card twitching? Fear not, a soothing fix is at your fingertips. It’s all so very easy… Been there? Come on, we’ve all been there.

Sure, only being a few clicks and hours away from the top, the shoes, the latest iPhone that’s going to change your life forever is bliss. Sure not having to leave the comfort of your home, do battle with the crowds, the vagaries of public transport and shop assistants, who either pounce terrier-like or leave you stranded, is a joy not to be sniffed at: equally so, the avoidance of ‘bag-hands’ as prized purchases weigh heavy, homeward bound.

However, hang on… What about the sod’s law factor of DHL, Yodel, DPD… arriving 5 mins after you’d given up hope, the killer of that top (looking beyond divine on the model) being made from cheap as chips fabric that creases like hell. And let’s not get started on the whole returns palaver…

Sweeping generalisations maybe, however, enough indication that online is not the be all and end all, convenience-wise.

Compare this with good ol’ fashioned high-street shopping. Old fashioned in the sense of entering bricks and mortar, of a physical presence – yet brand spanking new in the sense that the shop is dead, long live the concept store.

Smart retail operators have turned the shopping experience into an art form. Destination concepts stores fuse inspirational worlds of life-style, art, form and appetite-whetting, seductive content. More than a scroll, hover and a click, you imbibe an atmosphere that transcends everyday reality, which physically affirms your values (or, more often than not, enables you to borrow those you aspire to!) You rub shoulders with ‘people like you’, public recognition you’re ok, a bona fide member of your chosen tribe.

Yes, of course, some e-commerce sites, thanks to ever breaking boundaries of digital wizardry, envelop the shopper in a mini, mobile brand-world - and let’s see much more of that please. However, even the progressive pale against the surround sound, multi-dimensional experience of actually being in that world - for real, or augmentally so. It’s interesting that whilst you can now virtually build and test drive a new car online, visits to showrooms have increased as genned up buyers seek the ultimate gratification, that of closure in the real, real world.

Too mumbo gumbo? Okay, at a more prosaic level and for the more rationally minded out there, what can beat having a quick scrunch to check the crease-factor? The lure, look and feel of the leather seats, to go back to cars for a second… Seeing close-up the line of the stitching not to mention the reassurance that, pulled in tummies aside, those jeans are the best fit, pulling kit, this side of LA. And what online experience measures up to the rustle of tissue and ultimate thrill of the till?

The latest generation store sees retail as a persuasive, powerful liaison between offline and online shopping; where the physical presence of the products is related to the digital experience, and where the consumer dominates the space in which he/she moves, whether real or virtual. Both worlds collide creating a multi-layered, multi-sensual experience where consumers call the tune, make choices are listened to.

The store becomes a privileged place for finding out and experimenting, meeting and socialising, offering the visitor an exclusive, personalised journey. Digital experiences in-store break down barriers between the retailer and people to create intimacy with the objects on display. What’s more, information, suggestions, curated expert reviews and recommendations allows real-time customisation whilst at the same time this interaction and story-telling entertains, amazes, and encourages customers to play, to create memorable moments.

Undeniably the internet gives us access to a global high-street but, in the main, offers low emotional engagement. And at the end of the day we’re sensory beings and like immersive experiences. Ask yourself this: When was the last time you went and told a friend about a great shopping experience that wasn’t a physical one?

As Amazon has so deftly demonstrated, we’re at a vital tipping point in the retail story, where those who twig that the worlds of on-line and off, of actual, artificial, or augmented reality are mutually reliant. They co-exist to enable today’s consumer to make choices, and be as they wish to be wherever they choose to be.

The internet revolutionised how we buy stuff, my hope is that savvy retailers will display the brave, pioneering spirit of their on-line dance partners, and hand in hand with them break new ground within the in-store experiential space.

Amazon, the retail goliath, could do with a few nimble, feisty Davids to balance the score wouldn’t you agree?