Underground Session: how the physical space is evolving

18 Oct 2017

Where once a store served a single utilitarian purpose to supply the customer with goods and host a transaction, we live a world where the internet is swiftly overtaking that role. Still, the physical retail space isn’t dying. On the contrary, the role of the physical store is evolving into an experiential arena where brands can create deeper, more meaningful connections with people – and in turn, make our cities more interesting places to explore.

Inspired by future cities, Appear Here invited a panel of retail industry experts to discuss how the physical retail space is changing and which brands are thinking ahead. We were joined by guests Chris Sanderson, co-founder of The Future Laboratory; Charlotte Rey, co-founder of Campbell-Rey; Philip Handford, Creative Director of Campaign Design; and Paul West, Strategy Director of Dalziel & Pow. Here are the highlights from our conversation.

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When Aesop, everyone’s favourite Australian luxury skincare brand, opens up shop in a new location, they start by taking over several storefronts in an up-and-coming neighbourhood. This allows Aesop to choose which brands become their neighbours – so they can build relationships with them and can curate the kinds of stores that serve their clientele and the neighbourhood. Every Aesop location gets its own unique look and feel, designed by different architects, to integrate with the distinct identity of that area. Once the store is open, sales teams are trained to go the extra mile to service people who walk through the door. For example, if there’s nowhere to buy a newspaper or flowers nearby, they might sell newspapers and flowers next to their line of skincare products.

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©Aesop

This Aesop example, as Chris, the founder of The Future Laboratory pointed out, truly breaks with the one-size-fits-all shopping model that we’re so used to seeing on the high street. Which is an exciting prospect. Because as more and more of us trade stuffy changing rooms and check-out queues for convenient deliveries to our doorsteps and desks, it’s the brands that understand how to leverage this and bring value to their local communities that are winning.

Experience: the buzzword of the year

You’ve heard it before: people buy into experiences, not things. While the world obsesses over the word ‘experience’, our panelists enlightened us with a bit more insight into what great experiences mean for the physical space.

“It’s simply a way to create a human connection,” says Chris, whose consultancy exists to help brands understand how to make better decisions for the future. “Critical to understanding a great experience is the notion of being present, which is a luxury in today’s world. Those moments when time stands still and you think, what did I spend the last half hour doing? It can revolve around people, product or how you decide to interpret an environment. It’s about transformation.”

Charlotte, who co-founded Campbell-Rey a consultancy working across the fields of creative direction, branding, curation and design, chimed in to explain how this kind of connection translates to the work she does with brands, big and small. “We design spaces to encourage people to feel a certain way. We start by thinking about what the brand is really about– the human connection to it,” she says. Though she’s worked with established, high-end brands such as Bulgari and Theory, she explains you don’t need a big budget to be able to think about how your online brand can be translated into a physical experience.

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Away

“When we did the Away pop-up store on Redchurch street, it was clear the founders understood the importance of social media to their brand. They also understood who their customers are: they’re design-focused, in the loop, wear great sneakers, enjoy art and travel often. When they travel, there’s a gap in how that experience relates to them. Which is why we created a pop-up that imagined what the Away airline experience would be like: it would serve organic coffee, offer digital convenience, bring like-minded people together and have an eye for design.” Away’s physical store wasn’t created without the online in mind. The included in store “Instagrammable” elements (such as a living green wall) for their social-savvy customers to share online.

Radical personalisation

Big brands with expensive retail spaces are creating experiences that push people to buying online. Apple is a prime example. Only 20% of the purchases happen in store, even though 80% of interactions happen in store, Phillip, who’s the Creative Director of Campaign, tells his clients “let’s make your shops playable”. “It doesn’t matter when we transact, it matters how the people were handled,” Phillip explains.

In 2014, Campaign launched The Fragrance Lab, an experience together with Selfridges. They were asked to experiment into the future of in-store selling by letting people imagine how their characters could be distilled into a scent. The pop-up let shoppers create their own personalised fragrance based off information gathered about them through a survey on an iPad.

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The Fragrance Lab at Selfridges

“People were happy to pay 65 pounds on a fragrance they’d never smelled before, because it wasn’t actually about the fragrance– it was about creating an experience for the customer that revealed something about what they actually were. It challenged the way things are usually done in the buying experience– just think about how department stores like Selfridges usually have an entire fragrance hall at their entrances,” Philip recalls. “This idea of personalisation is something we’ve perceived to become more important. It comes down to what successful retailing is all about: going above customer expectations.”

Let’s get phygital

In the age of social media and online convenience, it’s actually a great time for digital-first businesses to think about how to leverage the physical through storytelling and content, says Paul of Dalziel & Pow, an agency focused on designing total retail spaces for brands. “There was a study that found that about 50% of people use their phones in store, so it would be a missed opportunity if, for example, a store clerk says you can’t take a photo or you haven’t thought about how Instagrammable your space is.”

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So how do people discover new brands? While the buyer journey increasingly starts online, the offline space offers brands the chance to build a more lasting, more meaningful connection with people. It’s when the digital and physical work together that the real magic seems to happen.

“We’re coining it the phygital at The Future Laboratory,” says Chris. “Recent technology introduced by Amazon Go is a real gamechanger. All you need is an app on your phone: you walk in the store, choose items you’d like, walk out and you’ll be charged for whatever you took with you. Suddenly, the store knows what you’ve picked up. Think about the implications this could have on the fast fashion industry. Primark will never be the same!”

What it comes down to is understanding your customer at an individual level, which future physical stores will be able to do. “When someone walks into the store of the future, the brand will know things about you such as your size, what’s in your shopping basket or other brands that you like. They’ll have the opportunity to tailor the physical retail spaces into a personal experience.”

Tune in to our Underground Sessions on Soundcloud or check out our events page to find out about the next one.

Words by: Lisa Roolant

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