Of all the sectors in the built environment, retail is arguably the most vulnerable to disruption. Consequently, the sector has revealed itself to have a strong capacity to reinvent old models at great pace and across its various niches. Catalysts for this agility have been the innovation revolution, the growing popularity of e-commerce and the closure of many established brands globally. Trends discussed in our recent Immersive Travel report, such as new technologies and shifting consumer spend towards the sharing and experience economies, are also having an impact on the retail industry.
In this report, we explore how organisations are adapting to this changing retail landscape. Digital innovations enable brands to reimagine the customer experience outside of a traditional retail context and thereby expand their reach. Many other examples in this report show an aspect of digital, whether it’s a small part or a driving factor of success. Customers are looking for more immersive experiences, altering the value proposition of retail spaces and the offering of the business. The industry shift has evened the playing field, with independent operations, start-ups and innovators emerging and bigger corporates slowly changing to meet market demands.
Early adopters and better informed customers are directing the future of retail, by choosing to spend their money on those brands that share their values and satisfy their needs. Retail will be in perpetual evolution. Those brands that are responsive, experimental and critical of former models will continue to captivate customers and thrive, regardless of what the future holds.
- Online and physical retail stores are increasingly being implemented as an integrated offering.
- Social media can be utilised as a platform to test ideas, stage one-off activations and generate sales in real time.
- AR and VR are being used to nurture a customer’s interest in a product by either building their knowledge and capability or by mitigating a pain-point in the purchase experience. Both these strategies bring customers closer to conversion and return visitation.
- Immersive environments are maturing. At one end of the spectrum, sensory-rich artist-led experiences are driving visitation, while carefully crafted low-key spaces provide an intimate product experience. Both command destinational appeal.
- Online platforms with strategic curation and high levels of personalisation are helping customers, particularly where a plethora of choices can easily overwhelm and deter them from buying.
- On-demand subscription platforms are enabling greater control over how and when customers can attain products by coming to the customer or simplifying recurring purchases.
- Start-ups are making it easier for businesses to get up and running in physical spaces and online and providing plug-and-play shopping capabilities for their customers.
Digital and physical retail are becoming fluid and fully integrated, with online no longer being a separate entity.
Technology has brought information and convenience to the fingertips of customers. We expect things to be quicker and easier, and this has been evident in the rise of e-commerce. Despite this rise in e-commerce and the fall of some major retailers, physical retail is still going strong.
In fact, 85 per cent of all purchases are still made instore, and Goldman Sachs only expects that number to drop to 70 per cent by 2022. Even though e-commerce offers convenience, customers still prefer tactility and the experience of being in a physical space. Both ‘digital’ and traditional bricks-and-mortar brands are beginning to leverage the benefits of the other through the integration of technology. The trend of blending of digital and physical retail is evidenced by Amazon’s move into physical stores with its bookstores, the opening of Amazon Go and purchase of Whole Foods.
With new technologies emerging and digital platforms being made available, there are infinite ways brands and retailers can reinvent their offering. The most successful are those that are discerning in their selection of digital tools and strategically bespoke in their application. Such an approach ensures the crafting of meaningful and relevant experiences, whether they are fanciful or practical in nature.
Social media has created a pathway for digital natives to connect with their favourite celebrities and brands. Businesses have the opportunity to engage with these users in more timely and transient ways that expand the experience outside of the store.
American retailer J.Crew tests new products and provides discounts and exclusive giveaways to followers on Instagram accounts @jcrew and @jcrewmen. Colourful ‘story sets’ about specific products are shared with Instagram-specific buttons and direct links allowing followers to view special offers or purchase products online.
J.Crew creates urgency through ‘limited time only’ offers available exclusively through Instagram live streams. These restricted offers are a way to gauge interest to inform wider marketing strategies and investment while also encouraging casual customers to follow and engage more with the J.Crew brand.
In addition, brands are experimenting with new forms of engagement combining events, social media and the public realm to create captivating experiences that generate sales. For example, a partnership with Nike and social media platform Snapchat saw an exclusive, pre-launch line of shoes for the Jordan brand. During the NBA All-Star weekend, Nike hosted a concert where attendees were guided to scan a Snapchat code on a basketball hoop backboard. The code revealed a special Snapchat filter before granting users access to purchase the not-yet-released Air Jordan III ‘Tinker’. The shoes sold out in 23 minutes and were delivered that same evening.
Here Nike has reimagined the shopping experience. It has succeeded by first selecting an experience and event that is meaningful to die-hard fans, and then leveraging popular social media to elicit a playful yet urgent sales tactic. This case also showcases Snapchat’s unexpected potential for future exclusive e-commerce experiences.
Augmented and virtual reality technology (AR and VR) has been available for many years, but its uptake has been slow as many businesses have struggled to find ways to integrate the new technology into their experiences. Those succeeding in this space leverage AR and VR to nurture a customer’s interest in a product by either building their knowledge or capability or by mitigating a pain-point in the purchase experience. Both these strategies bring customers closer to conversion and return visitation.
In a new app, Ikea lets customers experience their furniture in their own space with augmented reality. The Ikea Place app enables customers to choose from a 2000-product catalogue and virtually drop multiple products into their space. Items can be rotated and repositioned, which automatically scale to the room with the help of the technology which scans the room using the device camera. Once the items have been placed, customers can walk up to and around them. The benefits of such an app are the spatial and product accuracies transferred to the customer in a context that is in situ, tangible and risk-free. Ikea brings the ‘try before you buy’ strategy into home decorating in a convenient and stress-free format that hopes to ultimately draw customers closer to conversion.
Another example is American hardware giant Lowe’s Home Improvement, which has added a new capability to Holoroom, their instore virtual reality experience. Holoroom How To is a virtual reality training clinic, teaching customers basic DIY skills. In the first release, customers can learn how to tile a shower in a fun, immersive environment. Customers follow a step-by-step tutorial, simulating the movement with the VR controllers. The controllers help in correcting technique and add to the experience by mimicking the vibrations of a drill. The training clinic helps customers feel more confident in their purchase. Ensuring a customer has a positive first-time DIY experience will encourage them to learn more skills, attempt future projects and ultimately drive advocacy and return visitation.
Parts of the shopping experience cannot be replicated online, from being able to touch and feel products to the personal interaction with retail staff. Knowing this, e-commerce brands are increasingly utilising the benefits of a physical retail presence.
Hong Kong-based online apparel brand Grana has created a globally roaming pop-up, with their latest instalment in NYC. High-quality textiles are central to the brand; exposing customers to this ‘in real life’ is an important step in building Grana’s reputation. Staying true to Grana’s online roots, customers still place their orders online but with the added benefit of free shipping, a pop-up only offer. This try-before-you-buy strategy alleviates the common fears of online shopping while keeping the excitement of awaiting a delivery. The roaming pop-up generates hype and the puts the brand front of mind in different parts of the global market.
Alibaba, the Amazon equivalent in China, has also been making moves into physical retail space with their Hema supermarkets. Customers enter and scan the items they wish to purchase on the Hema app. The app also provides customers with information about the produce, such as origin and seasonal information. Customers can have their fresh produce cooked on the spot to be eaten on site or to take home. At the cashier, staff scan the customer’s phone to confirm the purchase and the payment is processed online through Alipay, Alibaba’s payment platform.
The app offers immediate delivery within three kilometres of a Hema supermarket. This new supermarket model provides customers with total flexibility over how and when they purchase and consume their food, thereby appealing to diverse lifestyles and the social preferences of China’s professionals and families.
The experience economy matures in the realm of retail as experiential niches emerge from the fanciful to the humble.
For a number of years now the experience economy and trends in immersive travel have been permeating the retail sector, as customers continue to seek the memorable over the material, reprioritising their spend. This is true particularly for millennials and those hit by the GFC, who have become accustomed to living with less and purporting an ethical stance on consumption.
While the experience economy is still in full swing, we are seeing it manifest in various ways across the property sector, from the fanciful to the low key, and with much inspiration for retail.
The influence of Instagram is tremendous in its ability to inspire and build hype around experiences and destinations that have heightened sensory appeal. Modern trendsetters curate their Instagram feeds conscientiously, inspiring a ripple effect whereby followers seek out the same encounters to keep on trend – be it across arts, culture, leisure or dining. Retail and hospitality brands are recognising the importance of creating destinational appeal to drive visitation and are doing so by crafting sensory-rich environments and leveraging arts partnerships.
On the more low-key end, some brands are taking a quiet yet powerful approach by providing intimate environments for customers to experience their brand and product. Lifestyle brand hotels are emerging that are accessible for the average customer, as are reconstructed ‘home’ environments for customers to engage in an in-situ, relevant and thus more informative context.
Immersive spaces that are visually lush and have a rich sensory component are increasingly becoming drawcards for audiences wanting an extraordinary experience. Not only attributed to social media, these experiences are being sought as a playful and rejuvenating escape to counteract busy lifestyles and constant connectivity. The savviest retailers are partnering with globally renowned artists to craft bespoke experiences that communicate their brand story in new ways. One particular exemplar is L’Occitane’s ‘Digital Provence’, a sensory experience created by digital artists, teamLab. The success of the venture lies in two points: first is that L’Occitane zeroed in on Asia, its major audience making up 50 per cent of its sales; second, it responded to their appetite for vivid digital experiences and provided the experience of a foreign environment — i.e., the re-creation of the fields of Provence — all in the heart of Tokyo. The installation also incorporated an olfactory component, integrating an interactive Flower Table, triggering aroma and the display of product information – thereby crafting a holistic sensory experience.
Sensory experiences can also take the form of sophisticated man-made naturescapes to transport audiences into a completely different environment. This is being executed by luxury hospitality brands which complement such places with five-star service. A key example is the Rosemont Hotel and Residences in Dubai. In keeping with the city’s reputation for the fantastic and artificial, the hotel will offer the world’s first man-made rainforest. Set to open in 2018, one can speculate its success will come down to the details that create authenticity. Part of the scheme are streams, waterfalls and a sensory rain system to mimic rainforest humidity and acoustics. A major draw of the project also comes in the escape and contrast of offering a desert city the foreign experience of lushness.
While these examples may present a stretch for retail malls or precincts, what they do underscore is the potential for conventional spaces to offer extraordinary experiences through unconventional programming or conceptually providing a contrast to the surrounding locale. A blank wall, an empty car park, a vacant thoroughfare are all stages waiting to be set.
In our recent Place Edition on Immersive Travel we reported on how lifestyle brands are moving into the hotel sector. The intention is to build customer loyalty, expand reach and give customers an intimate product experience in a new context. Here we analyse these ventures from a product perspective, as both furniture brands and bookstores make this leap.
Furniture brand West Elm has entered the hotel market as a way to sustain growth without increasing retail space. Partnering with hospitality management company DDK, the company has opened six West Elm Hotels across the United States in two years. Aiming to provide a high-end boutique hotel experience at mid-market pricing, the move makes ‘luxury’ accommodation approachable and accessible to West Elm’s target customer.
The purpose of the hotels is not to sell furniture, but rather to let their customers experience a style and service that is uniquely West Elm. The company also deliberately chose to open its hotels in second-tier cities with a distinct urban character that worked as a complement to the West Elm brand. The design of the hotels further leverages the personality and culture of that neighbourhood into the customer service to ensure guests have a localised and authentic experience reflective of the area.
Pioneering a new typology of store-come-accommodation, the Tsutaya Book Apartment in Shibuya, Tokyo is a 24-hour bookstore allowing customers to immerse themselves in books and stay overnight. While lifestyle and home product brands typically dominate the domain of branded accommodation, this is an interesting move for a brand centred on literature and media. It shows the power of product experience to drive the immersion, in this case ‘getting lost in book’ or taking a book to bed.
The multi-level Tsutaya Book Apartment appeals to various lifestyles and modes experience with different floors assigned to lounging, working and sleeping. The key areas are designed to resemble a common living space, providing a calming hideaway from the chaos of Tokyo. Other intimate spaces include chill-out zones, private bathrooms and women-only sleeping arrangements. The concept also appeals to Tokyo’s younger generation of workers with a floor dedicated to co-working, a Starbucks and a bar in the basement to unwind when the work is done.
While immersive experiences typically centre on the fanciful and highly stimulating, they can also be as simple as creating a relevant in-situ context for product engagement. Though brands have recreated ‘home-like’ interiors for many years, we are now seeing this done in a far more intimate way and being paired with personalised experiences and service.
A prime example is The Apartment by The Line. The boutique online retailer specialising in high-end fashion and home decor has leased out chic apartments in New York City and Los Angeles to stage its retail experience. The spaces are intended to appear like someone’s apartment, ensuring the absence of shelves and typical retail paraphernalia. The spaces offer by-appointment shopping where an assistant will show customers around the space to see and discover a mix of boutique, designer and antique pieces, with every item being available for sale. Hannah Martin of Architectural Digest likens the experience to ‘visiting a collector friend happy to part with his or her possessions’. In this very intimate experience, customers have the apartment almost all to themselves, as if it is their own. In doing so, the pieces gain more meaning as customers imagine them in their own lives, building a greater connection with the product.
Until recently audio brand Sonos relied on other retailers to sell its product. In its foray into operating its own stores, the spatial experience is centred on recreating a private home environment. At the centre of the main floor are two house-shaped listening cabins to replicate the experience of listening at home. Customers stream their own music through the Sonos range to decide which sound they like best. Whitney Walker, the store’s general manager, explains: ‘the best place to discover Sonos was at a friend’s place’. The space aims to recreate this discovery in a retail environment. From a strategic perspective, the store is being used as a marketing channel rather than a transactional space. The model has proved successful, with Sonos achieving an increase in sales in retailers in the vicinity of their NYC flagship.
Online platforms are putting customers in the driver’s seat, providing greater convenience, personalisation and control over the purchase experience.
The rise of e-commerce has created a cohort of customers that place a high value on both extensive product choice and convenience (in the form of efficiency and smooth customer systems). The likes of Uber and Deliveroo have shifted expectations around convenience, leaving consumers looking for ways in which other interactions can be simplified to make their lives easier. The strategic design and user experience of digital platforms are crucial in managing breadth of choice whilst delivering convenience for time-poor individuals. As such, companies are changing how goods can be purchased in ways that address these new needs, and customers are being given more flexibility and control through tech-enabled curation and mobile-led convenience.
Though extensive product choice is a major customer expectation, the plethora available in today’s market can result in choice paralysis and wasted time. Digital platforms are emerging which allow customers to strategically curate their preferences, narrowing large amounts of product down to a relevant and tight selection.
Technology has enabled more accessible personalisation, and luxury online retailer Orchard Mile has used it give customers a better online shopping experience. Its new platform My Mile lets customers create their own shopping streets, loading products solely from brands the customer actually shops at. In creating a profile, customers choose the brands they like and the product category within those brands as well as sizing information to create a shopping feed unique to them.
Since the launch of the platform, the company claims that sales have been growing at a rate of 26.9 per cent a month with an average purchase of S$350. The personalised ‘shopping street’ avoids the fatigue of searching and filtering products repeatedly. By allowing the customer to curate their choices, the frustration of time spent trawling is mitigated, resulting in an efficient and more enjoyable shopping experience.
Food and beverage companies are also joining this trend. In response to the often overwhelming choice of selecting a bottle of wine, The Wine Gallery removes the guesswork with its personalised wine subscription service. Customers simply complete an online ‘wine palette’ quiz to determine their ‘personal taste profile’. Based on this profile, the customer is sent a personalised selection of wine picked out by some of Australia’s best sommeliers. After trying all their wines, customers can rate and provide feedback and an algorithm collects the data to influence the selection for the next month. In this way, the system can personalise selections to the customer’s tastes but also adapt as their tastes evolve.
Such a flexible approach puts the company at an advantage, being able to easily respond to changing consumer and market trends. The wider benefit of the platform is the accessibility, allowing novices an easy entry into the world of wine. Simple communication choices, such as approachable branding and reduced use of jargon, also facilitate this. This strategy has created a diverse customer base, from those wanting to learn more about wine to those looking to discover new ones.
Consumers are well acquainted with using their mobile phones to deliver on-demand product and service at the push of a button. Moby Mart takes this one step further by allowing an entire store to literally come to the customer. Moby Mart is the world’s first staff-less, self-driving, mobile minimart undergoing beta testing in Shanghai. Using the Moby Mart app, customers can order a Moby Mart to drive to their location. Customers enter the store with their phones and use the app to scan the items they want to purchase. The customer is automatically charged upon scanning, and video recognition and AI can determine if an item hasn’t been paid for and alert the customer.
The technology is intended to be a new retail platform as opposed to a branded store chain. In the future, Moby Mart is looking to form partnerships with interesting businesses to bring mobile retail to their customers. While this format works well for convenience-based products, venturing into non-discretionary items will be more complex in terms of determining viability with respect to customer need.
Subscription services are another kind of on-demand transactions that bestow convenience to the customer. While this is not a new phenomenon, the model is undergoing change. Recently P&G released its own service, Gillette on Demand, for razor, which allows customers to order new blades more conveniently than its competitors. First customers pick which razor they want and then choose how they would like to purchase their razors. The options include a traditional subscription service as well as an on-demand model. The on-demand service lets customers order a fresh set of blades when needed through the website, via email or by texting ‘BLADES’.
In Gillette’s research, the key recurring topic was ‘ease of ordering’ which is exactly what the service tackles. While the on-demand service seems more convenient, customers of the subscription model receive every fourth set free. This industry-first process lets customers choose between price and convenience.
Retail enablers are lowering the barrier to entry by reducing costs, simplifying processes and adding capability and new revenue streams.
Building a business and breaking into the mainstream retail market is not an easy task. But as large chain stores and once popular brands close, and as consumers continue to look for the next big thing, smaller independent companies have begun to fill the void. Third-party operations have sprung up, helping smaller independent brands to enter the game.
These retail enablers are lowering the barrier to entry by reducing costs and simplifying processes. This is made possible by leveraging share economy models, finding revenue streams in under-utilised areas and mixing it with technology. They are giving creators options in ways that were not accessible to them years ago. Though primarily helping small and local commerce, these platforms can be used by bigger business to create a localised, personal touch while adding convenience. It is the beginning of retail and commercial markets moving to a more flexible approach to business, according to SCMP.
Traditional retail leases are costly and high risk, primarily for small businesses. A number of start-ups are stepping in with new models that reduce rental costs while allowing more flexibility in managing a physical store presence.
Starting out as a curated online marketplace, Bulletin has become a space for female empowerment through its shared retail platform. The company now has two bricks-and-mortar stores in Brooklyn and Manhattan featuring products from female-led brands that had previously only sold online. The retail membership model allows small and online brands to rent shelf space in either store. Selected brands are given shelf space and presence in the online store while also being able to access business and branding advice from Bulletin’s professionals.
The model is structured on membership fees which depend on the amount of shelf space and any required business/branding advice. This model lowers the barrier to entry into the physical retail market while also providing support to new and growing brands that are aligned to Bulletin’s values. Co-founder Alan Branston says they are ‘able to create stores with timely, reactive content because of [a] flexible sharing model’. The company is developing software to allow their brands to easily book shelf space and view sales numbers, adding further convenience and data for their brands to make strategic decisions.
With the continued popularity and effectiveness of pop-ups, Storefront is the Airbnb of short-term pop-up spaces. The platform kills several birds with one stone by providing temporary spaces for brands in desirable locations at a fraction of the cost of conventional retail rates, while also breathing life into otherwise under-utilised spaces or to fill gaps between longer term retail leases.
Storefront connects brands and retailers with vacant space in locations across USA, Europe and Hong Kong. Spaces range from full retail spaces to shelves in boutiques and can be rented on a daily to monthly basis. This gives brands and space owners as much flexibility as they need on a platform that makes it as easy as booking a hotel room. The platform is a full service with a secure online payment system, concierge which facilitates all bookings to 24/7 service teams available via phone, email and live chat. The space owner is also eligible for general liability insurance coverage at no extra cost, giving them peace of mind.
Storefront makes setting up a pop-up more affordable and accessible. It takes care of all the paperwork to make it easier and more transparent for both the renter and space owner. The initiative sees a future retail landscape in which there will be rent-free retail spaces everywhere through a consignment/commission model as an alternative to traditional leasing arrangements – a win-win for owner and business.
Same-day delivery is increasingly desired, even expected by customers, but often comes at a premium or is not possible due to the location of the stock in demand. Now companies are emerging to leverage vacant space in prime locations as fulfilment centres. Darkstore is a local logistics service that can provide same-day or two-day delivery at a fraction of traditional fulfilment options. It works with brands that have local stock, stores their products, packs and posts them out at an affordable price. Brands are not charged for storage but pay 3 per cent commission on all orders. Brands can now also provide same-day delivery direct from their own website.
The service takes an Airbnb approach by finding under-utilised storage facilities, vacant retail space in prime locations and turning them into mini fulfilment centres with the use of technology. By bringing the fulfilment centre closer to the customer, deliveries can be made faster while keeping costs down. The service partners with local courier companies and last-mile fulfilment services, such as UberRush, to get products to the end customer quickly. There is a focus on utilising what is available, working smarter, not harder, leveraging AI and robotic automation to become more efficient and passing the savings onto their customers.
A similar example is London-based start-up, NearSt, a company making it easier for locals to get their goods quickly while getting people back into high street shops. The platform lets customers search for products stocked at shops in their area either online or via the app. With real-time information from a network of retailers, customers can compare prices and choose to click and collect instantly, have goods delivered within the hour or go instore to see the product before purchasing.
The platform partners with store owners to add their local inventory to the NearSt database, bringing stores online. The technology can cleverly integrate with any native inventory system to keep the information up to date in real time. Everything is managed and automated, with shop owners only needing to prepare orders and pay commission on sales made through the platform. NearSt wants to partner with retailers of all sizes from the smallest corner shop to larger brands, with the aim of strengthening local commerce to benefit the whole community.
- Create compelling immersive experiences
Taking the lead from Place Edition 54, seek out partners to use assets for experiential branded events and promotions. Work with retail tenants to provide instore learning experiences, workshops and behind-the-scenes opportunities that enhance their physical store presence. Ensuring a good audience fit with your customers is crucial; they should see the experience as a value-add to the experience you already provide, not a distracting sales pitch.
- Find opportunities for customisation
‘All things to all people, all of the time’ doesn’t appeal to time-poor customers who expect environments to meet their personal needs. Aligning retail precincts and destinations to particular customer types makes it easier for them to find the products and services that are relevant and to spend time with people from their ‘tribe’. This personalisation can be carried through to digital channels. It also provides a better proposition for brand partners seeking to stand out to their target audiences.
- Plan for flexible formats
Pop-ups provide the variety, element of surprise and greater choice that consumers desire which cannot be met through the traditional leasing model. Activate idle or transitioning spaces by building unique experiences that create a temporary destination. To curate the best pop-up experiences, asset teams must plan for temporary and make pop-ups a core part of their strategy. Work with online platforms to outsource curation or collaborate with marketing teams.
- Bring back the high street
The high street experience is something that’s being cherished and revived by start-ups. Find ways to integrate independent retailers that are unique or well loved to create a fine-grain urban experience. Individual pop-ups or well-curated market experiences can be a great way to draw new customers. Retail destinations, in particular, can benefit from bringing the outdoors in, sleeving building exteriors with small retailers and engaging more with the outdoors.
- Integrate digital and physical experiences
The digital experience shouldn’t end once customers are in the store. Facilitate sharing physical experiences online, create enjoyable ways for customers to interact via mobile devices and reward customers for turning their online shopping research into an instore trip.
Editor at large
Photography & video
Design & web development
(In order of appearance)
Nike and snapchat
Rosemont Hotel and Residences
West Elm Hotels
Tsutaya Book Apartment
Gillette on Demand