The future of retail: from architects to experience makers

Consumers have access to more information than ever before and as a result, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for brands to surprise or impress within a traditional brick-and-mortar environment. The rise of IoT (Internet of Things) has disrupted the traditional path to purchase and, in order for brands to survive and thrive in this landscape of constant upheaval, retailers need to focus on forming a connection with their customers – providing new and different experiences that trigger an emotional response. The most successful retailer will not only sell products, but also share their brand’s unique value(s) and give something back to society – increasing customer engagement and loyalty.

Physical stores are an enormous investment for any retailer, and they represent a very high fixed cost in their operation. It makes no sense for them to try and compete with e-tailers, as what customers seek from a physical space is very different. In a world where someone has seen something at least once, it’s very important to provide a human touch and a truly unique customer journey. Retailers continue to experiment – combining technology with clever architectural details and interior design to help build their brands through multiple, and varied points of contact with potential customers. A compelling physical space doesn’t need to be a ‘store’ in the traditional sense of the word. From flagships and seasonal pop-ups, to fashion “trucks” and kiosks, we will see more experimentation from brands over the next few years, until the integration of online and offline businesses strike a balance (the quest in search of a seamless omnichannel experience).

“Fitting-lab” areas, where drinks are brought to you whilst you enjoy shopping with friends are no longer a stretch of the imagination and will most likely replace traditionally small (and uncomfortable) fitting rooms – designed for quickly trying on clothes. I anticipate that we will also see a rise in automated click & collect machines, as well as flexible spaces that showcase special joint ventures with other designers, brands and artists – prompting curiosity and emotion, and keeping customers engaged for longer.

Based on my twenty years of international retail experience, I believe that there are three key aspects that determine the success of a physical retail space:

  • Firstly, location. Without good visibility or a steady flow of targeted customers through their doors, retailers will never truly reap the benefits that a physical space can offer.
  • Secondly, a clever interior design that creates the perfect environment to display products. Details matter and a design that successfully incorporates technology (to ensure an integrated spatial and sensorial environment) is key.
  • Finally, it’s also important for brands to focus on marrying their online and offline environments (by taking an omni-channel approach) and handpicking the best aspects from each space to create a better customer experience. Beauty retailer, LUSH, are pioneers in this field and their Lush Labs app is a great example of a seamless customer journey – allowing customers to hold their phone above a packaging-free item to access ‘how to’ videos, ingredient details and demos.

To conclude…

It’s difficult to say for sure exactly where the future of ‘brick-and-mortar’ retail is heading. We all know that we are overconsuming and it’s becoming increasingly important for retailers to embrace sustainability, but there has also been a rise in ‘subscription living’, all these trends have an effect on the role of the physical store as a place for brands to develop long-lasting relationships with their customers. Creating  ‘best brand experience’ is key and as architects, perhaps we will have to reinvent ourselves as experience makers!