Focus: Technology


With online shopping increasing its influence on the retail market, physical stores are fighting back with the latest weapons


Words by Kay Hill

Successful retail is now about more than just shopping. ‘The whole nature of retailing is changing dramatically,’ says Sian Novakovic, experience strategy director at brand agency Household, ‘It’s about creating a brand experience and allowing customers to connect with the brand; the store needs to take on a meaning beyond the instant shopping experience.’ Gregor Jackson, partner at retail design agency GP Studio, sums it up: ‘If I’m buying something from Chanel, I can buy that in so many different ways; so, if I’m shopping in-store it needs to be a unique experience as I can so easily buy it online instead.’

Luxury American kitchen and bathroom retailer PIRCH allows customers a chance to try out shower heads and cook on hobs in home-like interiors designed by FitchLuxury American kitchen and bathroom retailer PIRCH allows customers a chance to try out shower heads and cook on hobs in home-like interiors designed by Fitch

Nathan Watts, creative director at retail and brand consultancy Fitch, believes that bricks-and-mortar retail has a big ace up its sleeve: ‘The key reason that people shop in stores rather than online is because of the excitement they get about the ability to try stuff in store that you can’t get from an online experience. Retailers need to make trialling as easy and as fun as possible.’ At its most simple, the introduction by Tesco of a counter where customers can taste artisan bread led to a significant rise in sales, notes Rich Ford director of new business at design consultancy Sherlock Studio, which was recently involved in the redesign of a Tesco Extra store in Swansea. But while tasting food or trying on clothes is relatively easy, introducing a way of trialling other products can be more of a challenge.

Seymour Powell’s Smarter Mirrors, in use at Superdry in Berlin, use virtual reality to allow customers to ‘try on’ clothes without having to undressSeymour Powell’s Smarter Mirrors, in use at Superdry in Berlin, use virtual reality to allow customers to ‘try on’ clothes without having to undress

In the USA, Fitch has been behind the retail design of PIRCH, a premium kitchen and bathroom company. ‘PIRCH is a store that reinvents the idea of try before you buy,’ explains Watts. ‘Customers can dream, use, and choose products that will bring joy to their lives. It’s a living, breathing space. And when he says use, he means that literally; customers can strip off and try what the shower heads feel like – ‘It’s like taking a car for a test drive but it’s a shower head.’ From a design point of view it wasn’t a simple undertaking: ‘The result is experiential showrooms with 30 live kitchen and bathrooms, requiring miles of plumbing and hundreds of floor penetrations in each store,’ he says. ‘But sales per square foot are up there with Tiffany and Apple, and customers typically spend more than two hours there.’

The Ellis Brigham Mountain Sports store in Covent Garden incorporates the Vertical Chill ice wall, where customers can try out clothing and equipment in authentic conditionsThe Ellis Brigham Mountain Sports store in Covent Garden incorporates the Vertical Chill ice wall, where customers can try out clothing and equipment in authentic conditions

Technology can also help with the trialling experience. While many stores offer make-overs, Watts notes that at Charlotte Tilbury, it’s now possible to have a computer-generated makeover in just 42 seconds, giving customers the opportunity to see virtual make-up looks on their own faces. Superdry’s new store in Berlin does the same with clothing.

Smart mirrors from Oak Labs allow customers to control the fitting room environment through lighting, alerting sales staff when they need help, changing the language, and even paying for their items using the mirror itselfSmart mirrors from Oak Labs allow customers to control the fitting room environment through lighting, alerting sales staff when they need help, changing the language, and even paying for their items using the mirror itself

The Smarter Mirror from design consultancy Seymour Powell allows customers to try on clothing without having to undress – the mirror scans the customer, creates a ‘reflection’ that moves with them and then adds on the clothing items. From the retailer’s point of view it reduces the need for changing areas (also reducing theft) and collects data about what customers are interested in; for the consumer it means faster, less irritating try-ons, with particular benefits for those with reduced mobility or sensory issues.

The Roots store in Toronto designed by CallisonRTKL offers customers a chance to watch bags, footwear and jackets being hand-finished and to customise their purchasesThe Roots store in Toronto designed by CallisonRTKL offers customers a chance to watch bags, footwear and jackets being hand-finished and to customise their purchases

The other main way in which bricks and mortar retail is fighting back is through offering more than just an opportunity to buy stuff – the most successful stores offer experiences, fun, entertainment, education, food and drink and a whole host of other ways to feel part of the brand story. ‘Experiences are particularly valuable to the younger generation,’ says Novakovic. ‘Buying a product is only part of that connection to the brand.’ Irene Maguire, director at design consultancy Caulder Moore, points to examples like the Sweaty Betty flagship store on Carnaby Street that offers customers a chance to have a workout or a meal as well as buy new gear. ‘By creating a store concept that integrates studio, food, beauty and lifestyle as well as product, customers gain an insight into the Sweaty Betty brand world and culture,’ she says.

Ron Singler, senior vice-president of retail stores at architecture and design practice CallisonRTKL, notes: ‘Customers today are looking for more than just a transaction from the retail environment. Today, the retail store may be more of a showroom for brand advocacy and sampling, with a personal level of service offerings. The online offering can be very broad while the retail store can be edited. You need to create a reason beyond just buying something; you need to entice the guest to be a fan of your brand, an advocate. Personal interactions that cannot be provided by the online channel are important.’

Household created a brand home for Dunhill Tobacco at 1A St James’s, Mayfair. It includes a sampling lounge where guests can try cigars, and 56 copper humidors, where regular customers’ personal cigars are kept in optimal conditions

Household created a brand home for Dunhill Tobacco at 1A St James’s, Mayfair. It includes a sampling lounge where guests can try cigars, and 56 copper humidors, where regular customers’ personal cigars are kept in optimal conditionsHousehold created a brand home for Dunhill Tobacco at 1A St James’s, Mayfair. It includes a sampling lounge where guests can try cigars, and 56 copper humidors, where regular customers’ personal cigars are kept in optimal conditions

For example, the company’s design for a Toronto flagship store for iconic Canadian company Roots includes a space where customers can watch the handcrafting of its leather bags, jackets and boots and can customise their purchase.

‘Over time we’ve seen a shift from almost pure retail towards a highly sophisticated mix of brand experience and leisure,’ adds Watts. ‘In addition, some retailers are cleverly integrating products within artistic installations, developing ever more theatrical environments to envelope their customers.’ From art installations at Dover Street Market to the immersive, theatrical experience of HMKM’s Tryano store in Abu Dhabi, to the fun of Harrods’ Dolce&Gabbana Christmas market, retailers are pulling out the stops to make stepping away from the computer worth the effort.

Dover Street Market, created by Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, features lighting installations, art pieces and a sense of retail theatre throughoutDover Street Market, created by Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, features lighting installations, art pieces and a sense of retail theatre throughout

According to Lara Marrero, retail design strategy leader at design and architecture practice Gensler: ‘More than anything, the word “retail” is being redefined. It’s not just being disrupted, it’s being augmented. It has now become standard to focus on the storytelling aspects of the brand, and stores are becoming increasingly agile and constantly changing. People’s tolerance for stagnation is getting lower and lower, they now have the appetite that everything around them needs to constantly change. The result is that retailers need to look beyond just providing product; they need to generate engagement and create community in the spaces. People are buying stuff online, but to get them back in-store you need to give them something they can’t get online – deliver them more than just a product or a service; something that will leave a lasting impact.’





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