The retail apocalypse is upon us.
It’s a phrase we’ve heard all too often over the last 12 months. And while there’s certainly a rumbling in the retail sphere, the resulting sentiment shouldn’t be one of impending doom only. Rather, brands should have their minds and eyes wide open to innovation and new opportunity to forge relationships with consumers.
With all of the dramatic change and transition we see happening in retail, the most exciting — and perhaps, most enlightening trend by far — may be the growing love and customer desire for the physical brick-and-mortar space. While brands have been grappling with the increasing complexity and competition in e-commerce, what consumers are actually telling us is that there’s still very much a place for the store as it exists in their journey and experience with a brand.
In fact, if we really listen, they’re telling us that it’s still absolutely essential to the overarching brand perception. The difference today is that the store isn’t its own “channel” anymore. Like all other ways to reach the consumer, it’s an innate part of the stories we tell about a brand. Retailers who pivot to this new reality, and find compelling ways to weave the store back into the primarily digital lives of modern consumers, will come out of this so-called apocalypse with new life.
The Generational Paradigm
When it comes to understanding the changing behaviors of people, we all too often look through a closed-off, generational lens. Take Generation Z, for example. A generation that, six months ago, may have been somewhat more elusive for companies that have struggled to lure non-brand-loyal Millennials. But a defining characteristic of Gen Z is their proclivity for in-store shopping experiences. We’ve likely seen the statistic from IBM and NRF’s 2017 survey that revealed 67 percent of Gen Z prefers to shop in a physical store versus online. Why? Because they crave connections that transcend the kind of experiences that can be had online. And guess what – this new Generation Z “paradigm” actually tells a much larger story about what today’s modern consumer wants, regardless of the generation he or she comes from.
Taking a close look at the behavioral attributes of people, in general, often helps brands to determine how to provide them the most meaningful experiences – in other words, thinking from a truly human perspective. A large number of brands are establishing new in-store concepts and physical experiences that tap into some of these more human needs.
Physical Retail as Escape
Escape, in whatever unique, individual form it exists, is something that we all yearn for. In its application for retail, escape is best understood when looking at how digital, and even synthetic, our experiences have become, when in reality, it’s the visceral and authentic that we crave most. As consumers, we find ourselves needing to detach in order to escape the information overload, even just for a little while, and retail store experiences are tapping into that at an ever-increasing rate. When brands focus less on shopping, and more on the experience offered, they allow themselves to become a true destination. The retail excursion becomes about much more than just a purchase — it’s about the creation of a memory, a safe space for creativity and curiosity, and a shareable moment. It has everything to do with the environment, the culture and the brand promise, rather than feeling like just another day at the mall.
Physical Retail as Curated
When we think of curation, we think of the careful mixing and implementation of content. Curated experiences are often designed with an individual preference in mind, or with the intent to tap into a certain kind of emotion. Jen Lee Koss, a Canadian retailer and cofounder of Brika, defined curated retail as having a deep point of view; in other words, it’s not trying to be all things for all types of people. Curation can also involve scaling down on a selection while narrowing in on your customers’ tastes, leading to personalization and increased brand relevancy overall.
Recently, Nordstrom announced its new retail concept, Nordstrom Local, a store that will provide an experience curated for a unique subset of Nordstrom’s shoppers. While many consumers have flocked to Nordstrom’s off-price Racked stores, the retailer recognized that the personalized styling offered in their department stores was resonating with many of their customers. Nordstrom Local integrates personal styling, but curiously, does not offer regularly stocked inventory.
The 3,000-square-foot space also offers manicures and bar and coffee drinks. While the lack of inventory might puzzle investors and other industry experts, the Local concept is curated to be just that — local. For customers that prefer professional styling, the Local atmosphere will become a place for meeting a trusted friend for fashion advice that can be had over drinks and manicures. How much the new concept will resonate remains to be seen, but Nordstrom’s willingness to experiment, rather than remain stagnant in its approach, shows its commitment to the changing customer.
Escape + Curated – What Can be Achieved
We talk of retailers tapping into human needs for escape, and curated experiences. Last week, we came upon a brand that focused on the delivery of both to customers — the Best Made Company, in their retail experience on 36 White Street in Manhattan. Our journey with the brand did begin within their digital experience, where they established a dedication to quality products, and offered reliable information in an engaging, user-centric web site enhanced with deep visceral, image-based storytelling and content.
The store experience appealed to the senses immediately with a sophisticated music playlist — not overly folksy, but very real. Olfactory senses weren’t bombarded by a masking fragrance, but instead, a scent. And a believable one at that, of waxed cotton, wool, burnished steel and husk. With that comfort level immediately established, and the sense of authenticity clear, customers could find themselves engaging with the curated collection of flags and the physical artifacts pulled from the brand’s stories of adventure found online.
The merchandise was curated and set out before us. We experienced firsthand a unique sense, especially in this age of abundance and selection, that the work was done especially for the customer audience. It was both refreshing and inviting. Brand ambassadors working the floor were truly that, and not simply sales people; offering assistance and enthusiastically sharing stories of the brand. Customers could also leave the store with Best Made Company’s print catalogue, which appears more like a handbook of relevant merchandise to complement the adventure had in store.
The feeling of being there tapped into the desire for escape, and elevated the shopping experience, meant to feel truly curated. Now is the time for brands to be designing and exploring these elevated experiences. Not just through complex technology can these concepts be achieved, but rather through the things we all want as humans: connection and inspiration.
Roy DeYoung is vice president of creative strategy and Sara Pollack is senior manager of marketing and content strategy at PMX Agency.