Pivotal trends as retail rebuilds momentumAstrid Svensson
A mere two months after the great reopening of non-essential retail in the UK, we are seeing the sector picking up momentum. The recent acquisition of Touchwood shopping centre in Solihull by US firm Ardent is a prime example of fresh investment into the sector – and this week, we also heard news about a potential sale of Selfridge’s following an unsolicited offer which could see the Weston family part with the iconic department store for a substantial £4bn price tag. But whilst retail is still very much alive and kicking, there is no denying that the Covid-19 pandemic has taken its toll on the sector. Retailers that want to stay relevant to consumers must reinvent themselves to do so, which we are seeing in the shape of an increase in new initiatives being launched and an acceleration of pivotal trends.
Long before the pandemic, omnichannel was the word on everyone’s lip, but after months of store closures and the subsequent rise in e-commerce – 36.6 per cent according to the IMRG Capgemini Online Retail Index– the balance between online and stores may have changed forever. According to AlixPartners’ Changing Consumer Priorities report, 56 per cent of UK consumers have permanently changed their spending habits following the pandemic, whilst 43 per cent plan to shop more online than they previously did.
However, most experts believe that rather than an either/or situations, lines between digital and physical will be blurred. For example, just as bricks-and-mortar stores use technology to replicate the convenience of online shopping, online stores will increasingly use technology to replicate the tailored experience of an in-store visit. Customers will also recognise the benefits of each channel and blend them effortlessly, for example by trying on an item in store before buying it via their mobile phone and having it delivered to their front door. Successful brands will be those that amalgamate their digital and physical universes to create seamless omnichannel experiences.
One recent case study of the blending of digital and physical worlds is Sephora’s new Beijing flagship, which features digital artwork by acclaimed young artist Chen Baoyang throughout the store, an augmented reality photo booth and the ability for customers to shop 24/7 thanks to a virtual store platform on both a dedicated app and a WeChat Mini programme. Burberry’s Shenzhen flagship is another: via WeChat, visitors can create an avatar and use it to interact with the store’s window display, book changing rooms in advance to try on pre-selected clothes with a personalised soundtrack playing in the background to spice up the experience and make appointments with personal shoppers.
After months of lockdown, what it all comes down to is customers wanting to have great experiences, be that online or in-store. Which is why, also over in China, London-based architectural firm Sybarite is developing a series of experimental retail spaces, with one notable example including a sci-fi style ‘Mars zone’ featuring life-size model space vehicles and immersive surroundings reminiscent of the Martian landscape. Commenting on this initiative, Sybarite co-founder Torquil McIntosh said that this was in response to consumers “just [wanting] to have fun, spend a day out and Instagram the hell out of everything” – which pretty much sums up the appetite for retail more than a year after the onset of the pandemic.