Blog: Winning in high street retail

Retailers can learn from the event industry and create the ultimate destination, turning shopping into an event, says Tim Jones, creative director at RPM.

The high street thrives through experiential retail
The high street thrives through experiential retail

Today I digitally hailed and cancelled two Ubers before I finally got in one. Both asked me to wait six minutes before pick-up. I wasn't prepared to wait for six minutes. This isn't 2015...My impatience was a symptom of what Uber has termed ‘decaying willingness’. Statistically, the longer Uber has been in a city, the less willing to wait for a car everyone becomes. Modern technology and revolutionary service provision have turned us into the most demanding consumers in history.

Such high expectations and evolving digital behaviours have had a well-documented effect on traditional retail: the big chains have given the independents a whipping, department stores are done for, and the only people who now consider the British high street a destination are Pokémon Go laggards and my nan with her penchant for pound shops.

Hope for the high street

Not all is lost for bricks and mortar retail. Research from Deloitte shows that the high street retained 93% of all transactions in 2015. Despite appearances, humans are not solely driven by convenience, and are not only fulfilled by mobile screens. Experiential professionals are well aware that people long for interaction, connection and experience that no smartphone, UX or algorithm can offer. Mobile technology cannot wholly replace the power of real-world events when affecting and changing behaviour.

But digital/physical is not a binary thing; we already see the best digital customer experience coming to life and affecting inputs or outputs of our physical experiences. Deloitte also notes that conversion is 20% higher when shoppers use digital interactions alongside their store visit.  It seems rich and effective experience in 2016 will bring our digital and physical worlds together to deliver on the expectations of the new empowered and demanding customer.

Interaction over transaction in modern retail

Prioritising interaction over transaction is the most important consideration when designing a modern retail experience. It is also the hardest to get commercial teams on board with. For many purse holders, investing away from transaction-driven comms and infrastructure at point of purchase is just plain bonkers. Although technology which drives in-store conversions offers sales directors evidence that interaction can be monetised, they must appreciate all the jobs the store can do for total brand equity.

Virgin Holidays, like many in the sector, uses VR to bring customers closer to its intangible product and enrich the consideration experience. They use Google’s lo-fi Google Cardboard headset, allowing a customer to take the experience home and share it with other decision makers invested in the purchase.

Some examples of our favourite experientially rich shopping include:

  • The store as an entertainment destination: Topshop brought the catwalk into its stores for London Fashion Week. Visitors to the store could don an Oculus Rift headset and be transported to the front row.

  • The store as permission to play in culture: The new Sonos 101G store in New York recreates an acoustically perfect house via seven separate booths, encouraging shoppers to relax and hang out while listening to music. The House of Vans has become a hub for skaters with a live music stage, skate park, art gallery, café, bars and cinema.

  • The store as a community hub: Nike Town is one of the homes and meeting points of Nike Running Club, a free club for city runners looking to meet new people. The Rapha store is a great place to hang out for cyclists with its Italian café vibe, a casual browse amongst its offerings doesn’t feel like shopping in the slightest.

  • The store as a place to experience brand purpose: Lush Kitchen is an online service that makes a daily small-batch limited edition product in its Poole factory, offering it exclusively to shoppers on the Lush website. Is this a physical or digital experience? It doesn’t matter, it’s a perfect expression of the brand’s fresh, handmade and ethically-sourced purpose and the company says it drives 10% of online sales.

A rise in experience brands

This year’s BrandZ index of brand value received attention because of Coca-Cola’s shock slide from the top 10 but the real story was the rise of experience brands that offer an ecosystem of products and services that integrate themselves into our daily behaviours (Apple, Google, Amazon etc.). Apple has already conquered the high street and Google is making moves in this direction. These brands know experience is critical and for many, the high street is where they come to life.

Experiential specialists should focus their work on making stores a destination, arguing the case for interaction over transaction and building communities with a purpose beyond profit. Above all, we should heed Bill Grimsey, author of The Vanishing High Street who called for retail to ‘recapture a sense of vibrancy, social cohesion and face-to-face encounters’. Just like any great event.

Comment below to let us know what you think.

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