In recent years, retailers have faced unprecedented concerns surrounding physical retail stores. Such is the climate of current retail, mainly surrounding analysis and ‘big data’, retail stores’ effectiveness has come under question. Naively, some experts were quick to discount the presence of brands and retailers on the high street, as online potentially offers greater returns at a fraction of the overhead.

However, with the growth of omni-channel marketing and the development of technology that aids the interaction of online & physical commerce; physical stores have once again been pushed to the forefront of retail.

Jim Whyte, Head of Insights at FITCH, commented that:

Physical retail still has a vital, if changing role to play, even for primarily digital brands. It is in stores that customers can learn more about the brand’s products through engaging and entertaining experiences, and where attentive service can best provide personalised solutions for individual customers.

The future of retail does not lie in either physical or digital channels but in seamlessly integration of both.

The Drum – March ‘15

Creating engaging and entertaining experiences, as Jim Whyte mentions, is becoming an increasingly elaborate process, which again relies on the integration of technology. One company looking to improve their retail locations is River Island, who recently called upon Unibox Retail to develop graphic displays and a brand new shelving system (launched at the Retail Design Expo). Such was the influence of technology on the high profile attendees of the show, it was immediately noted that the cable free – illuminated shelving system could be used to not only mount shelves, but also (with development) power screens that activated based on user interaction.

The integration of digital and physical channels has long been on the radar of brands and retailers. The use of beacons in-store to not only engage customers but also increase the likelihood of a purchase, has been used in stores such as Urban Outfitters, which sends a push notification to mobile users as they arrive in certain areas of the store (fitting rooms, check-out desks etc.). However, some retailers are taking a much simpler approach. Marc Jacobs opened a store in Manhattan during New York Fashion Week, and rather than customers buying their products with money, all they asked for in exchange was a mention on social media –  through a post or a photo of them in-store. Although this isn’t a long-term solution, this approach of rewarding customers based on sharing content such as hashtags has been adopted by many retailers, and looks set to continue as the simplest way of tracking engagement online.

David Roth from WPP calls this new basis of interaction the arrival of the ‘sentimental store’:

The physical retail space will be redefined in the near future to become more experiential and communal. The arrival of the so-called “sentimental store” is driven by AI and the fact that the technology is widely accessible now, allowing retailers to curate the in-store experience around their customers in real-time. Smart vending, intelligent shelves and on-demand merchandise are all innovations that WPP’s David Roth predicted would usher in this personalised in-store experience.

The Drum – March ‘15

This level of interaction is becoming expected in a market of elaborate retail environments. Adidas for example use a sophisticated display system that allows users to ‘virtually’ see football boots and trainers, which once tried on can be ordered directly via the display itself.

Integration is key in the online world, and rather than solely using one medium to buy, customers are now expecting to have ‘an experience’ whether it’s online or offline, often combining multiple touch points before the final purchase decision. Being present in a consistent, engaging manner across all channels is the real challenge modern day retailers have to face.