PARIS — As traditional retailers battle to retain consumers’ attention in an increasingly digital world, the role of stores is shifting away from products toward experiences — and the more immersive, the better.
In the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, which accelerated the shift to online shopping, and with the metaverse looming, retailers are luring back visitors with formats that employ sight, sound and smell to transport them into dimensions previously associated with gaming or movies.
“Stores are no longer only competing with cafés and restaurants in terms of experiences, but really are now competing with a Fortnite, or Roblox, or Netflix or TikTok,” said Bas Van De Poel, cofounder and innovation director at think tank and design studio Modem.
“There’s an entire new generation of youngsters, customers who have extremely high expectations and a really well-established aesthetic sensibility and taste level as a result of spending more time online, in these really immersive environments,” he added.
Modem worked with Nike on the FitAdv Weather Dome, unveiled earlier this year at the sporting good giant’s House of Innovation flagship on Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris. It used state-of-the-art technology, including a 23-foot-wide high-resolution LED screen, wind turbines and an HDR lighting rig to create a larger-than-life try-on experience for its FitAdv apparel line.
“The actual experience combines physical elements like wind and light with a rendered digital environment that you’re stepping into, filmed by a very sophisticated robotic arm carrying a quite expensive camera, so you’re getting, like, a Hollywood production when entering a store,” Van De Poel explained.
When the recording is completed, visitors scan a QR code to receive a custom video edit, ready to be shared on social media.
Amsterdam-based Modem, launched in March 2021, is dedicated to studying the impact of digitalization on our lives, whether through research papers with institutions like MIT, or its work with clients such as Snap Inc. and Ikea, where Van De Poel previously worked as creative director of Space10, the Swedish furniture company’s experimental innovation lab.
He’s convinced that in the future, the productivity of stores will be measured not by the amount of merchandise shifted, but by the experiences they deliver.
“The role and the proposition of the store is in that sense shifting as digital becomes increasingly more important,” he said. “Stores are really more transforming into these branded worlds, basically, where you can create a full expression of a brand’s DNA that is perhaps not possible in an online environment, at least today.”
The evolution has not been lost on department stores, which are competing to offer visitors transformational experiences.
La Samaritaine, the LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton-owned Paris institution that reopened last year after a 16-year renovation of its Art Nouveau building, teamed up with French audio technology company Devialet and aerospace firm ArianeGroup on what it dubbed a “sound journey to space.”
Visitors entered a white sound-proofed cube where eight Phantom I Devialet speakers broadcast the sound of an Ariane 5 launch from Arianespace’s Guiana Space Center — think bristling jungle sounds, followed by the roar of rocket boosters.
“It’s the loudest sound produced by man on Earth,” said Nathalie Chopra, head of international marketing and communications at Devialet, who experienced the recording in person. “It’s incredible, and it’s not just the intensity of the sound, but the complexity of the frequencies, the way the sound is constructed.”
She reported growing demand from retailers and luxury brands for tailor-made soundscapes, such as the “phantom orchestra” it designed for the Paris Opera. The discovery area inside the historic Palais Garnier building uses 16 custom-designed Phantom speakers to broadcast the sound of different instruments.
“Experience is our essence,” said Chopra. “At Devialet, we want to restore sound to its rightful place, because we think people have been bombarded with images. Hearing is a sense that has been neglected. We want to surprise people and show them that when you listen intently, sound can tell many stories and generate unique emotions.”
Last year, Devialet joined French luxury goods association Comité Colbert, and one of its projects involves capturing the sounds of a silversmith’s workshop.
“We’re the first technology brand to join Comité Colbert, so we were thrilled, and it has put us in touch with incredible brands that really get what we do,” she said. “I think there’s a very high-end clientele that’s a little saturated by traditional services and gifts, so people often come to us to create experiences that have never been done before.”
With its recent Superself wellness event, Selfridges in London touted “a new kind of retail therapy” with experiences including confidence coaching, breath work, sex therapy and sensory pods promising “a safe trip.”
Developed by Dutch health tech company Sensiks, the pods were equipped with voice-activated systems that stimulate the senses through temperature, airflow, sound, light and smell, combined with virtual reality, to create a hyper-realistic simulated reality designed to improve mood and reduce stress.
Fred Galstaun, founder and chief executive officer of Sensiks, initially developed the technology for medical purposes. After launching the pods at the SXSW Festival in 2017, he tested them among mentally disabled and elderly people in a care home in the Netherlands, with further clinical trials focusing on the treatment of trauma, anxieties and addictions.
While the experience has been available at the KLM business lounge at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, this was his first time working with a retailer. “We’ve been getting more and more requests from stores lately because everything is opening up again. To create centers of well-being is becoming more and more popular,” he noted.
While Galstaun was somewhat surprised that Selfridges should be interested in the benefits of psychedelic experiences for mental health, he made sure the 10-minute sequence, which incorporates fractal patterns and scents like incense and peppermint, was accessible to a mainstream crowd.
“I think Selfridges is doing a great job. They’re really creating a lifestyle, a place to hang out, and that, for me, was an eye-opener,” he said. “That was for me the best store experience ever, because normally I want to run out of every store. I never do any shopping. But it’s a really positive vibe and a lot is going on there.”
Now Sensiks is moving further into the realm of personal care and entertainment. In addition to building software development tool kits for leading game engines like Unity and Unreal, it’s preparing to launch home pods.
“We have the software and the content platform for games and content, VR or maybe only just music, to program into a multisensory experience to increase the immersion in the digital worlds,” he said.
“Experience also happens in your brain, and if you look at this whole metaverse thing which is going on, I think that will become a very important part of our lives, because if you utilize the possibility of your brain to undergo experiences as real from your house, for instance, or from any location, a lot of things become possible in a very sustainable way, and that is I think exactly what the world needs right now,” Galstaun added.
That increases the pressure on retailers to offer compelling reasons to venture out into the real world.
“We’re living in an unprecedented moment in time where, due to the pandemic, a lot of things have accelerated and more than ever before, you need to have a resilient strategy when it comes to reaching your audience. And the way you’re going to reach your audience will be increasingly more fragmented, and you need to have multiple strategies at play in order to reach your goals,” said Van De Poel.
He believes that while the development of the metaverse is still in its infancy, retailers can’t afford to ignore its potential impact. “Where computing becomes spatial, I think that’s going to be a major shift and you already need to be investigating and investing in that space. But I think it’s quite early to say what it will be like and what it will mean for retail,” he said.
“The experience is still limited and it’s also challenging the reason to go to a store in the first place, because you could also activate that AR experience anywhere else. So the thing is really about trying to define what is the role of the store in this digital age and how do you differentiate yourself from a game or a competing digital experience,” Van De Poel concluded.