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Retail nirvana is closer than you think

For the first time in five years, the number of store closures is showing signs of stopping. The likes of Amazon, Ocado and Watchfinder are proving that, despite customers being wedded to their mobile devices, physical stores can claw back appeal by enabling customers to experience products in totally new ways.

Whilst product testing will always be an important driver for consumers to enter stores, today an even bigger advantage is emerging. As of yet, very few retailers are actively exploring its benefits.

What does the future look like?

Rather than create something that competes with the online retail experience, stores of the future must exist to bridge the online-offline gap.

What does this mean exactly?

I predict that the next generation of store will harmonise the physical and virtual retail experiences, strengthening the loyalty of customers who come into contact with them; building deeper, more consistent engagement between customer and brand, wherever they are located in the world. No retailer has completely nailed this omni-channel existence yet, but many are beginning to experiment in a variety of creative ways.

Samsung’s flagship store, for example, introduced football pitches to give an immersive experience of its technology, which could then be shared online. Apple stores, of course, made digital browsing devices their in store statement pieces, and Burberry heightened its reputation for exceptional multi-channel marketing this year with its first retail store built entirely around the user experience of its website.

But one brand has taken an even bigger leap. Cosmetics giant Sephora is today challenging the entire retail landscape by digitising the physical shopping experience with its new Flash 3.0 concept store in Paris. The model takes the brand beyond click-and-collect and into the realm of ‘shop-and-ship’, allowing access to an even vaster product range that visitors can sample in the flesh.

As part of the experience, the store anticipates the digitally driven behaviour of today’s consumer. Visitors to the store will discover detailed digital catalogues on every touchpoint, easily browsing and selecting what they want, then adding items to their virtual baskets. Shoppers can totally personalise the content they receive using the technology, having their purchases picked and shipped to them instantly, making buying in store as seamless and customised as it is online.

In this leap towards the future of retail, Sephora bridges gaps in the company’s holistic offering using the powerful Connected Retail Platform technology; drawing a symmetry between each of its international stores, its app, website, the physical counters and even its customers social networks.

It’s testament to the changes we’re seeing in the retail landscape today. Retail is no longer just about how consumers use a brand. It’s about offering bespoke purchasing opportunities, at every opportunity. With that comes a further challenge: how to make each sensor a noteworthy and enjoyable data-generating experience, which feeds back into how the brand improves its overall ecosystem?

Futuristic retail sells

Conversion rates in store are much higher than they are online. It’s another reason why finding news ways to attract consumers into stores is an incredibly valuable process. In store, brands have the power to create richer physical touch points that bring products to life and increase sales. But figuring out the simplest, seamless and most digitally effective way to get shoppers to convert in store is something many brands battle with today. Until a brand solves this problem, gathering any real consumer feedback will remain obsolete.

Data collection within stores has, until now, proven largely inconclusive, and is rarely used to enhance future experiences in a meaningful way. The Sephora concept and technology provides the brand a way to consume and review consumer data, just like Google Analytics would a website. Such a connected online-offline experience will certainly attract the ‘always-on’, tech-savvy customers, who have huge influence on their social circles’ buying behaviour.

It’s an experiment that will no doubt cement Sephora’s position as a spearhead for the entire industry, highlighting to other retail professionals how far a physical store can go, as well as letting its own employees see first-hand how new consumers behave within an entirely new store environment. Having a head start like this over the rest of the industry makes it a risk worth taking.

Nirvana is near

In store results today are fragmented because consumers are only just beginning to appreciate the trade-off between having instant-gratification and having a more leisurely and relevant shopping journey. Today, brands must contend to appeal to both whilst connecting consumers digitally, too.

Savvy brands will look at how the retail experience can marry the best of online – its scale and convenience – with the tangible experience shoppers know, love and be wowed by. The potential rewards for success are enormous, extending far beyond improved brand perception or increased direct sales.

Brands not looking beyond digital signage will fall behind the leaders. A designer’s job today is to assist forward-looking retailers in their experimentation with omni-channel stores, because soon it will be unavoidable. Over the next year or so, brands will be expected to harvest valuable data in unique store experiences, share information across real-world apps and operate virtual shopping baskets – a reality not even Amazon can boast, yet.

Jonathan Himhoff, founder and MD of Connected Retail Platform

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