Consumer purchases from Internet retailing websites continue to expand, and their share out of total retail sales increases. Yet there is no real reason to declare the demise of physical, bricks-and-mortar stores and shops any time soon. Online purchases from e-stores (including through apps) indeed pose a stressing challenge to many physical stores, but the latter still hold a solid and dominant majority share of retail sales. Nonetheless, owners of physical stores will have to make changes to their mission and approach to retailing in order to answer effectively and successfully to the challenges from electronic retailing (‘e-tailing’).
The share of sales revenues from online retailing varies across categories (e.g., from groceries to electronics) yet the share overall out of total retailing revenues still floats around 12%-15% on average; there is also important variation between countries. Tensions are high particularly because of the threat from overarching e-tailers such as Amazon and Alibaba who grew their businesses in the virtual online environment. However, retailers do not have to choose to be either in the physical domain or the virtual domain: Many large and even medium bricks-and-mortar retailers are already double-operating through their physical stores and the Internet and mobile channels. Moreover, the master of Western e-tailing Amazon is lurking into the physical world with the establishment of its Amazon Go food stores, its venture into physical bookstores in selected US locations, and notably the acquisition of the food retail chain Whole Foods — what better testimony of the recognition that physical stores are still in need. All these observations should tell us that: (1) The lines between physical and virtual (electronic) retailing are blurred and the domains are not exclusive of each other; (2) It is a matter of linking between the domains where one can operate as an extension of the other (and it does not depend on which is the domain of origin); and (3) The domains are linked primarily by importing technology powered with data into the physical store’s space.
Technology alone, however, is not enough to resolve the challenges facing physical stores. Focusing on technology is like harnessing the carriage before the horses. The true and crucial question is: What will consumers of the coming future be looking for in stores? This is important, because consumers, especially the younger generations born after 1980, still have interest in shopping in bricks-and-mortar stores but they could be looking for something different from past decades, moreover given the digital options available to them now. The answers will have to come through rethinking and modifying the mission and strategy set for physical stores. The direction that seems most compelling for the mission is to shift emphasis from the merchandise offered in a store to the kind of experience offered in the store. The strategy may involve reconsideration and new planning of: (a) the product variety and volume of merchandise made available in the store; (b) interior design and visual merchandising; (c) scope and quality of service; and (d) the technologies applied in the store, all tailored to the convenience and pleasure of the shoppers.
This article will focus primarily on aspects of design of stores, including interior design and decoration, layout, and visual merchandising (i.e., visual display of products); together with additional sensory elements (e.g., lighting, music, texture, scent) they shape the atmosphere in the store or shop. Yet it should be noted that the four strategy components suggested above are tied and influence each other in creating the kind of experience a retailer desires the customers-shoppers to have while in-store.
Shopping experiences in a store rely essentially on the emotions the store invokes in the consumers-shoppers. Notwithstanding the sensorial and cognitive reactions of shoppers to the interior scene of the store, the positive and pleasant emotions the shoppers feel will most likely be those that motivate them to stay longer and choose more products to purchase (further desired behaviours may include recommendation to friends and posting photos from the store on social media). Prior and close enough to consumption itself, the personal shopping and purchasing experience may invoke a range of positive emotions such as joy, optimism, love (non-romantic), peacefulness, and surprise; of course there also are potential negative emotions that retailers would wish to reduce (e.g., anger, worry, sadness)[*].
The need for shift in emphasis in physical stores is well stated by Lara Marrero, a strategy director with Gensler, a British design firm: “It used to be a place where people bought stuff. Now it is a state where a person experiences a brand and its offerings”. Marrero, who is leading the area of global retail practice at the firm, predicts a future change in mentality of shoppers from ‘grab and go’ to ‘play and stay’ (“Retail 2018: Trends and Predictions”, Retail Focus, 15 December 2017). This predicted shift is still inconsistent with a current retail interpretation of linking the digital and physical domains through schemes of ‘click-and-collect’ online orders at a physical store. Additionally, consumers nowadays conduct more research online on products they are interested in before coming to a store: The question is if a retailer should satisfy with letting the consumer just ask for his or her preferred product at the store or encourage the consumer-shopper to engage and interact more in-store, whether with assistance from human staff or digital utilities, before making a purchase — the push may have to come first from the consumers. Marrero further notes the social function of stores: retail environments become a physical meeting point for consumers to share brand experiences. Retailers will have to allow sufficient space for this in the store.
In order to generate new forms of shopper experiences the setting of a store’s scene also has to change and adapt to the kind of experience one seeks to create. New styles and patterns of in-store design are revealed through photo images of retail design projects, and the stories the images accompany, on websites of design magazines (e.g., VMSD of the US, Retail Focus of the UK). They demonstrate changes in the designing approach to the interior environment of stores and shops.
A striking aspect in numerous design exemplars is the tendency to create more spacious store scenes. It does not necessarily mean that the area of stores is larger but that the store’s layout and furnishing are organised to make it feel more spacious, for example by making it look lighter and allowing shoppers to move more easily around. Additionally, it implies ‘loading’ the store’s areas which are accessible to customers with less merchandise. First, merchandise would be displayed mostly on fixtures attached to walls around the perimeters of the store, but even then it should not look too crowded (i.e., in appreciation that oftentimes ‘less is more’ for consumers). Second, fewer desks and other display fixtures are positioned across the floor to leave enough room for shoppers to walk around conveniently (and possibly feel more ‘free’). In fashion stores, for instance, this would also apply to ‘isles’ of demonstrated dressing displays. Third, desks should not be packed with merchandise, and furthermore, at least one desk should be left free from merchandise — leave enough surface for shoppers and sellers to present and look at merchandise and to converse about the options. In some cases, it may allow for the shoppers to socialise and consult among themselves around a desk at the store (e.g., inspired by Apple stores). Opportunities to socialise can be enhanced in larger stores by allocating space for a coffee & wine bar, for instance, which may serve also sandwiches, patisseries and additional drinks. Stores would be designed to look and feel more pleasant and enjoyable for consumers-shoppers to hang around, contemplate their options and make purchase decisions.
Large stores that spread over multiple floors with facades turning outwards to the street may fix the facades with glass sheets, and in order not to block natural daylight from entering into the store they would place desks and mobile hangers or other low shelf fixtures along the windows.
In the new-era store not all merchandise the store may offer to sell needs to be displayed in the ‘selling areas’ accessible to shoppers. Retailers may have to retreat from the decades long paradigm that everything on display is the inventory, and vice versa. It is worth considering: First, some merchandise can be displayed as video on screens, and thus also add to the ‘show’ in the store; Second, shoppers can use digital catalogues in the store to find items currently not on display — such items may still be available in stock on premises or they may be ordered within 24 hours. But furthermore, customers may be able to coordinate online or through an app with a store near them to see certain products at a set time; up-to-date analyses of page visits and sales on a retailer’s online store can tell what products are most popular, subsequently guaranteeing that the physical stores keep extra items of them in stock on premises.
Here are references to a few exemplars for illustration of actual store design projects published in design magazines’ websites:
Burberry, London — The flagship store of luxury fashion brand Burberry on Regent Street is highlighted for both the use of space in its design and the employment of digital technology in the store. A large open space atrium (of an older time theatre) occupies the centre of the store (four floors, 3000 sqm), impressive in how Burberry allowed to keep it. The digitally integrated store is commended for its fusion of a ‘digital world’ into its bricks-and-mortar environment: a large high-resolution screen plays video in the atrium, synchronised with a hundred digital screens around the store, some 160 iPads (e.g., for finding items on the catalogue that may not be on display), and RFID tags attached to garments (VMSD, 18 December 2012).
Hogan, Milano — The footwear ’boutique’ store (277 sqm in via Montenapoleone) is designed to reflect the brand, “luxury but accessible”. The store’s mission has been described as follows: “Hogan is a lifestyle brand, championing contemporary culture. The store therefore needed to be dynamic, working hard to adapt from retail space to live event or gallery space”. Characteristic of the store: tilted surfaces for display, lying on top of each other like fallen-down domino bricks; and an animated display of patterns by LED lighting behind frosted glass walls — they both reflect movement, the former just symbolically while the latter more dynamically, to “express the dynamism of the city”. The store of Hogan also fosters social activity around its host bar and customization bar (Retail Focus, 15 February 2018).
Black by Dixon’s, Birmingham (UK) — The technology retail concept aspires to make “the geeky more stylish and exciting”. Digital technology is “dressed” in fashionable design, aiming at the more sophisticated Apple-generation (distinctive in the images are the mannequins “sitting” on desks as props, and colour contrasts on a dark background). (VMSD, 24 May 2011.)
Stella McCartney, Old Bond Street, London — The re-established flagship store resides in an 18th century historic-listed building (four floors, 700 sqm). Products such as dresses and handbags are displayed (sampled) across the store in different halls. The design and lighting give a very loose feeling. Refreshingly, the ground floor features an exhibit of black limestones and “carefully selected rocks” from the family’s estate, a piece of nature in-store (Retail Focus, 14 June 2018).
Admittedly, some of the more distinctive and impressive design exemplars belong to up-scale and luxury stores, but they do give direction and ideas for creating different experiences in retail spaces, even if less lavishly. Furthermore, technology can enrich the store and add a dimension of activity in it. Yet it is part of the whole design plan, not necessarily its central pillar, if at all.
Installing digital technology in a store does not mean importing the Internet and e-store into the physical store. Features of digital technology can be employed in-store in a number of ways, and the use of an online catalogue is just one of them. There is no wisdom for the physical store in trying to mimic Internet websites or compete with them. It should find ways, instead, to implement digital technologies that best suit the store’s space and transform the experience of its visiting shoppers.
Moreover, the store owner should identify those aspects that are lacking in the virtual online store and leverage them in the bricks-and-mortar store (e.g., immediacy, non inter-mediated interaction with products, sensorial stimulations other than visual and audio, feeling fun or relaxed). Thereof, the store should borrow certain technological amenities that can help to link between the domains and make the experience in-store more familiar, convenient, interesting, entertaining or exciting. According to an opinion article in Retail Focus on “The Future of High Street” (Lyndsey Dennis, 25 April 2018): “To draw customers back to brick-and-mortar, [retailers] need to rethink how they use their physical space and store formats. The key is to give customers something they can’t get online, whether that’s information, entertainment, or service“. Advanced technologies such as Virtual reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) are part of the repertoire that are increasingly introduced in high street stores [e.g., AR applied in the fitting rooms of Burberry’s store, triggered by the RFID tags].
Matt Alderton, writing in ArchDaily magazine of architecture and design (25 November 2015), details key technologies and how they are implemented in stores to create new possibilities and leverage shopper experiences. One group of technologies can provide vital data to retailers which in turn can be applied to interact with shoppers and return useful information to them (e.g., beacons, RFID tags, visual lighting communications). The second group includes display technologies that may be enriching with information and entertaining to shoppers: for example, VR and AR, touch screens, and media projected on a surface such as table-top which thus becomes a touch screen. Alderton clearly sees consumer need for physical stores, the question is how consumers would want them: “What the data says is that shoppers want to move forward by going back: Like their forebears who visited Harrods, they crave emporiums that are experiential, not transactional, in nature“. (See also images in this article as they portray new-fashioned designs in space and layout; notably these stores feel less crowded by merchandise, and some show in-store digital displays.)
These are challenging times for bricks-and-mortar stores. New possibilities are emerging for physical stores to grow and thrive, yet they will have to adapt to changed shopping and purchasing patterns of consumers and develop new kinds of experiences that appeal to them. It should be a combined effort, with contribution from interior design of stores and visual merchandising, utilities and amenities based on digital technologies implemented in the store, and the support and assistance by human personnel. The in-store design is especially important in setting the scene — in appearance, comfort and appeal — that will shape shoppers’ experiences. Retailing could evolve as far as into new forms of ‘experiential shopping’.
Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)
Reference: [*] Measuring Emotions in the Consumption Experience; Marsha L. Richins, 1997; Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 24 (September), pp. 127-149.