The future of retail is certainly hot news at the moment, a constant stream of negative stories about retail brands collapsing or struggling in the face of the rising trend to online shopping, compounded by their failure to reinvent the shopper experience.
For the recent Retail Business Technology Expo this generated a valuable news-jacking opportunity; cue TV news footage of interactive screens enabling consumers to visualise how the latest shade of lipstick looks on them, screens and scanners for easy access to product information, and robots helping shoppers navigate around stores.
But as promising as some of these tech innovations are, no doubt the required level of investment is high for those retailers ambitious enough to embrace them. I’m left thinking that the retail sector is missing some far more obvious and accessible opportunities to reignite our enthusiasm for shopping. (And as the guest retail analyst on BBC Breakfast observed, it’s only ever men who ask if retail is dead – most women still love to shop!)
Online shopping is fine if you have a good sense of what you’re looking for, but it can be an unrewarding and time-consuming experience if you’re simply browsing or looking for inspiration. Give me a couple of hours in a good department store any day over the same frustrated hours skimming websites.
Like many consumers in all age bands, there are many products I’d much rather see and test out in person before buying; fashion and homewares are prime examples. I want to see the actual colour of a jacket, feel the texture and quality of a dress, try on a pair of trousers to see how they fall, sink into a sofa cushion before I take the plunge.
And yes, I want to do this in comfort, with good lighting, adequate mirrors and changing rooms I can turn in. I’d also like the chance to ask questions of a knowledgeable sales assistant, and to be able to pay for my purchases without queuing for 20 minutes at an understaffed pay-point.
Instead, even in supposedly ‘upscale’ stores, all too often I find shabby, gloomy, spaces with neglected flooring, chipped paintwork and grimy strip lighting, overstuffed with stock, and with too few staff to provide meaningful customer service. In these environments, shopping becomes an arduous chore, not an enjoyable indulgence. Shopping from my sofa starts to look a lot more appealing.
For me, the tech innovations being held up as the future of retail focus too heavily on a (probably futile) effort to mimic the functionality and convenience of the online experience, rather than getting to grips with customer emotion as the key to sales.
Of course the economic and social factors behind the decline of physical ‘bricks-and-mortar’ retail are many and complex. But, while it may be driven by a rational drive to manage costs, I believe that underinvestment in the look and feel of their physical spaces will be the proverbial nail in retail’s coffin.
In a challenging trading climate, savvy retailers with a focus on long-term success will look beyond price, merchandising and promotion and consider how they want their customer to feel when they invite them through the door, and how they can use that to create differentiation and brand affinity.
In the wide format print sector, retail is held up as one of many segments which can benefit from the opportunity to refresh and customise interiors quickly and at comparatively low cost, using digitally printed floors, wall coverings, window graphics and surface décor, and I’m sure we’ll see plentiful examples of these retail décor applications at FESPA 2018 this week.
Today, the best retail graphics specialists are showing their clients how to reinvent retail spaces as inviting and even immersive multi-sensory experiences that actively encourage product experimentation, extend dwell time, deepen brand engagement and stimulate purchase.
Edwardian retail guru Harry Selfridge surely hit the nail on the head when he said, “Excite the mind and the hand will reach for the pocket.”