Talking Points

Carlos Virgile considers if the reinvention of retail is driving a constant search for a new framework and design aesthetic consistent with this new disruptive world.

IN MOMENTS of crisis, we all think about the future, what it will bring to us, and how will we adapt and enjoy the many new ideas and challenges.

It is enough to watch the news to be confronted by a feeling of confusion, even if we want to embrace whatever comes our way with optimism. Our own version of this imaginary scenario depends on our personal stage in life and how strongly we can apply a level of positive thinking and creative imagination.

Regrettably, the future is not a moment in time, but a constant moving dimension of blurred metaphors that never stops and stays still. Films have always been a good reference – a kind of fantasy pre-metaverse world – suggesting illustrative imagery that influences our perception of future days and encourages our reaction. From Lumiere’s Trip to the Moon, the German expressionism of Fritz Lang in Metropolis, to the science fiction films in the 50s, Kubrick’s 2001 and later Blade Runner, Gattaca and Ex-Machina, right up to the metafiction of the Marvel movies. These screen inventions of the future are part of a stimulating collective ‘imaginarium’, a fantasy that rarely translates later into a tangible reality.

We project ideas of the future that are far more exciting – in some cases more disturbing – than whatever comes next. It is a kind of innate forecasting system that allows us to reassure ourselves of the days ahead and be prepared to embrace change.

It is not a coincidence that retailers and consumers these days are talking of the future of retail, and how the so-called ‘store of the future’ might physically look. The moment we define it, the concept is already moving on, pushing us into a frustrating chase.

As a designer with many years of experience in dealing with successful and motivated single minded clients, I have often been presented with the gift of a great design brief: a new, ground-breaking concept that will change the market or attract a new one. A revolutionary brand repositioning that will somehow encompass the illusion of bringing to reality the ‘store of the future’.

I remember well the excitement when given the opportunity to reinvent Top Shop for the 80s generation, or being tasked with transforming the Burberry brand from a British white elephant to a global success in the 90s and, more recently, reimaging the Harvey Nichols department store for new times.

Regardless of the results, the challenge is always fascinating and empowering. But eyebrows are discreetly raised in disbelief when I hear about the brave challenge of having to imagine and deliver the ubiquitous store of the future. The changes the world of retail is facing seem to be unprecedented.

They are radical and profound, affected by variable influences, not just the natural development of design trends and shopping styles. They are deeply rooted in political, social, environmental, and generational issues bridging across a radical cut between old and new formats and cultural stands.

There are current staple formulas when we think of future shopping environments which have become prime factors. The integration of digital technology into the physical space to activate new communication lines and reach new demographics seems now like deja vu.

Likewise, the need to create memorable connected in-store experiences enhances the perception of brands, driving sales and long term engagement. Brand activation through storytelling, events, pop-ups, entertainment, and hospitality, with the use of technology to inform, educate and amuse are current everyday tools for designers and retailers alike.

Not even the most unreceptive, ‘stuck in the past’ retailer or consumer would be inclined not to embrace these new principles or at least accept the effect they have. They have become basic tools required, like the need for basic shelves or hangers to display garments, but perhaps not sufficiently ground-breaking enough anymore to represent the store of the future.

WOW, a daring concept illustrating the above well has recently opened in Madrid, aiming to blend the physical and digital worlds and pointing towards a new type of retail. The unconventional, slightly gimmicky design plays like an extraordinary theatrical stage, aiming for the ultimate flexibility, promising constant changes every season and exploring technical innovation reflecting their online offering through interactive systems.

On a recent visit to Dubai as the signs of the pandemic decreased, retail seems to be quickly resurrecting. Drawing some similarities to the bold approach of WOW, the Mall of the Emirates has seen the opening of THAT – a new concept store taking over the retail space by Majid Al Futtaim. It deserves top marks for its obvious desire to fulfil their mission to attract a Millennial market as well as those always looking for something more exciting. It combines well-curated ‘cool’ brands with technological innovation. Always through a playful and stimulating design approach that seems to be based on generating the energy and agility to react to the moment like a giant size pop-up store.

By focusing on their products as a design centre-piece, Apple stores have cemented their place as leaders in store design. Image Credit: Aaron Hargreaves / Foster + PartnersBy focusing on their products as a design centre-piece, Apple stores have cemented their place as leaders in store design. Image Credit: Aaron Hargreaves / Foster + Partners

Majid Al Futtaim has also recently collaborated with Cisco, a worldwide leader in IT and digital transformation, to launch, quite literally, the so-called Store of the Future in the Mall of the Emirates. Elevating the traditional shopping experience by incorporating digital retail to introduce customers to a futuristic shopping journey.

It’s not the products that are that different in their objective of targeting a new audience, but rather a series of cameras, sensors and artificial intelligence technology working in harmony to personalise the shopping experience. On one hand, looking at technological advances I feel like humanity has better days ahead. On the other hand, I wonder if this is the only way.

When it comes to digital innovation, there is no doubt Apple comes first on the list and their Knightsbridge store opening totally endorses this statement. It is interesting to compare the previous examples with something as familiar as an Apple store.

Their stores never claimed to be for the future, but they were from the start. Their identity communicates variations of a minimalist design not supported by unnecessary thrills or gimmicks, keeping the excitement strictly linked to the products and the architecture of the space. Their attitude is based on traditional retailing values, such as the excellence of the product design, a no-nonsense presentation and personal service through their Apple Genius Bar.

The storytelling to engage the shopper at an emotional level is restricted to the minimum and as a direct link to the performance of their products.

Their belief in rather classic retail values does not jeopardise the place Apple has in opening doors to the creation of the Store of the Future model. Luxury fashion brands are facing not just the need to refocus the concept of luxury itself for a new generation, but of finding the new design vocabulary that will project them well into the future, giving them longevity.

Balenciaga is a case to highlight. As a fashion brand needing to update their image in line with their creative direction, they are not afraid of radically cutting away their past links with the masterful elegance of their original creator, nor the design of their new retail presence. Judging by a new store in London’s Sloane Street, the future might look unglamorously different.

There is an aesthetic narrative running through the store that could either be perceived as a garage building site or an uncompromising and exquisitely detailed architectural concrete shell, depending on how customers want to see it. The approach resembles the attitude of the Arte Povera manifesto in the late 60s in their use of raw, poor materials to make a statement. The results in evidence are of an artificial raw concrete environment in contrast to the high price tags of the collection, and closer to their recently launched deliberately dirty trainers.

The design approach projects the Balenciaga brand into a new future, somehow downgrading the luxury image by making the effort to make it look rather poor and harsh.

Is this a return to a Blade Runner look? The store of the future is also an environment that should reflect attributes and values going beyond the physical store presence. It is not just technological integration and style theatricalities becoming part of a retail staple diet, as much bigger issues are taking priority. Sustainability and environmental concerns are in everyone’s brand manifestos. Embedded in the production line, materiality, packaging and presence in the environments, the provenance and distribution system and carbon impact is defining the future of stores in a big way. Retailers and designers ignore these at their peril, or otherwise risk quickly becoming the shops of the past. These big issues can’t be just a brand posture used as a marketing tool. They require an in-depth rethink in the way retailers operate, particularly in the physical design of store environments and how shoppers engage. It asks for changes of thinking at board level, and a greater flexibility and agility in responding to change and innovation with creativity, rather than wasteful ideas and costly revisions of identity to stay ‘on-trend’.

Today, and in the future, we expect to experience shops and commercial environments not just as a brand marketing asset, but as places that talk to us at an emotional level, contribute to our well-being and that of our communities, encouraging us to believe in a new and positive way to confront our world

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