10 steps to future proof retail

 The Future Stores Conference is pitched as Europe’s only meeting place for in-store experience innovators. As a sponsor, we knew there was certainly lots on offer. We’ve distilled the latest smart thinking on future-proofing into a ten-step programme.

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1.Tap into the millennial mojo

Future Proofing Retail - Chvrches at House of Vans
Chvrches at House of Vans

What was very apparent was the continued powerful influence of Gen Z and millennials. (While only 20% of the working population, millennials now make up 48% of the total media audience.) Karen Harris, Managing Director at Intu, wondered in her keynote whether physical retail space can ever be truly cool enough for this digitally native, experience-hungry demographic.

One approach, she suggested, is to use the store as a media channel; a venue for community events, live content and local information. Like House of Vans, whose Lambeth store is a cultural hub that streams gigs from the likes of Glasgow synth-pop stars Chvrches, with an event space and skateboard park thrown in for good measure. Beauty subscription success story Birchbox is another bold example – bringing its unique ‘try, learn, buy’ model to life for the real world in a Carnaby Street pop-up. Also earning a shout-out was Bite, a new-ish Canadian company specialising in all-natural lip-products, that’s brought ‘Lip-Labs’ to the hip streets of NYC, Toronto and San Francisco, where customers can have fun creating their own perfect shade.

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2. Apply ‘positive friction’

Future proofing retail - Ritual Islington's tea ceremony
Ritual’s Islington store where customers are given a tea ceremony

We shouldn’t be afraid to slow things down, according to Penny Grivea, Managing Director of Rituals, whose stores aim to provide an oasis of calm and relaxation from the hectic day-to-day. Because we’re such a stressed-out bunch, adding ‘positive friction’ to the customer experience is valuable, explained Richard Lems, its Director of Format and Design. To this end, visitors are offered cups of tea when they enter and can enjoy a free 15-minute yoga and meditation session in store.

Lego is another big name dialing up the dwell time. Simone Sweeny, VP of Global Retail Development, told us they design to let people ‘stumble upon different experiences at their own pace’ – with elements like play tables and its hugely popular Mosaic Maker. Guy Smith, Head of Design at Arcadia, also emphasised the need to encourage the joy of discovery, risk-taking and effort in store.

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3. Tech it easy

Future Proofing design - MediaMarktSaturn’s Robot, Paul
MediaMarktSaturn’s Robot, Paul

In Finders Keepers, we’ve written about the importance of effortless, intuitive retail – and how our insatiable demand for convenience is constantly being fed by ever-smarter technologies. Karen Harris’s presentation touched on voice commerce, self-replenishing products, 5G and mixed reality, while Amazon’s head of enterprise, Natasha Toothill, described voice-enabled, connected experiences as the ‘third evolution of ecommerce’.

Robotics will bring more of this super-convenience to the physical store, according to Christian Stephan, Head of Innovation at MediaMarktSaturn N3XT. Their own robot, Paul, helps shoppers navigate larger stores by walking them to a shelf and carrying out inventory and price checks. Paul has completed the equivalent of 520 work days in customer support in just a few months, leaving sales associates free to focus on delivering quality customer service.

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4. Instil trust

Future proofing retail - Amazon Basics range
Amazon Basics range

Christian Stephan also reminded us that, as technology increasingly does our everyday shopping – seamlessly replenishing our larders, even replacing our lightbulbs – brands will be become less important as deciding factors. We won’t much care which brand of batteries or washing powder gets delivered, because the retailer we’ve order from knows our preferences and fulfils these needs without our interference. That’s why, he argues, Amazon’s own-label basics range is doing so well.

Alongside this, however, trust will continue to grow as a consumer need, stressed Natasha Toothill, who highlighted that 90% of consumers say it’s a key factor when making purchase decisions. As they increasingly rely on a handful of platforms, retailers and technologies to do the basics, they’ll choose the ones they trust most to take care of their needs – and their data.

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5. Retail with purpose

Future proofing retail - Birchbox's London pop-up
Birchbox’s London pop-up

We know consumers want to shop with brands they have an affinity with, so a brand’s purpose – above and beyond the stuff it sells – is increasingly important in decision-making.

Three of those we heard from at conference – Lego, Birchbox and Rituals – talked passionately about their bigger mission and how the store experience built around this becomes richer as a result. Lego’s Simone Sweeny said everything in store is designed to bring to life its core belief – that play is critical to a child’s development – with store associates trained to encourage touch and play. Birchbox’s Rachel Humphreys said everything it does, across all its channels, is about giving customers ‘a beauty editor as a best friend’.

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6. Pinpoint post-consumer needs

Future proofing retail - Topshop's Waterslide VR Experience
Topshop’s Waterslide VR Experience

Arcadia’s Guy Smith framed his talk around two over-riding themes: ‘a need to survive’ and our ‘want to thrive’. These days, tech takes care of our ‘need to survive’. Meeting the ‘want to thrive’ is where physical experiences can play. Thriving’s all about learning, developing, growing as a person. Our status reflects how well we’re thriving, but what this means for today’s consumers is changing, Smith stressed. Status, for millennials especially, is not primarily about what they own – but about how much fun they’re seen to be having. That Insta-ready avocado on toast has more status points than a shiny new toaster.

The right store experience – optimised for the millennial desire for discovery and reward – can answer this need and thus be the platform via which a brand can define itself and its role in the consumer’s life.

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7. Sell stories, not stuff

Future proofing retail - Start's retail experience for Dyson
Start’s retail experience for Dyson

Telling stories is a solid route to bringing purpose to life. The reason to visit a physical store is now more inspirational than transactional. It’s about capturing the shopper’s imagination, not their credit card. There’s no coincidence, according to Guy Smith, that flagging US department store Macy’s has bought Stories, a start-up that curates a new series of narratives around its product selections every month. Stories is teaching this traditional retailer how to change for the future. Intu’s Karen Harris flagged the immersive innovation story Dyson has built around its products as another great example of a brand using its design story in a compelling way to convert shoppers.

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8. Get an attitude

Future proofing retail - Simon Dixon, Rockar at Future Stores 2018
Simon Dixon, Rockar at Future Stores 2018

Now more than ever, it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it, stressed Smith. Attitude increasingly encapsulates how brands will be defined, rather than the sector they currently occupy. Amazon being the prime (pun intended) example here – its ask-anything approach convinced consumers it could be much more than a book store. Attitude opens new avenues. It lets you ‘own the disruption’.

Founder of Rockar, Simon Dixon, took the same tone in his keynote. Rockar has reinvented how cars are sold around a more accessible, low-pressure attitude – specifically to target women buyers, who’re (amazingly) still a relatively untapped segment in the market.

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9. Engage & empower your associates

Future Stores workshop attendees 2018

This was a big issue, throughout the entire conference. Many of the best-practice brands sharing how they empower staff to embody their values and play an integral part of the store experience.

Dutch senior management visit every new Rituals store to make sure culture is embedded, investing management time in consultation with store staff to anticipate problems and capture feedback. MD Penny Grivea believes this has contributed to a reduction in staff turnover by 3%.

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10. Get going

Future proofing retail - Amazon Go, the check-out free shopping experience
Amazon Go, the check-out free shopping experience

One thing’s for sure, physical retail – albeit a re-imagined, redefined, connected idea of the store – is alive and kicking. But it’s desperate to break free of the constraints it’s laboured under for too long. The conference reaffirmed what we at Start believe – that the imperative for change is here.

Physical spaces are where people come together: to learn, make decisions, socialise, have fun, escape the everyday. For physical retail to be valuable, this is where it now needs to make its mark. The store that does all of this secures customer relationships and increases their lifetime value.

Perhaps the last words should go to Jeff Bezos, as quoted by his colleague, Natasha Toothill:

‘We need to lean into the future’.

Let’s Start now.

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Kevin Gill Retail Director, Start