New retail and the changing landscape of shopping
The high street has lost its allure. There is no secret about that. Wandering through central London, down Oxford Street and past empty Debenhams, or through Victoria and the closing of Army & Navy store, it is easy to blame the current pandemic for the demise of the traditional department store. In the US, the once profitable Neiman Marcus is struggling, and JC Penny has closed some 160 of its stores. But the department store has long been on the decline. Digital shopping has been eating away at bricks-and-mortar, while too many old-school brands have been reluctant or too slow, lacking in agility and vision to embrace change.
In their golden age, the department stores of 19th century were glorious, hugely exciting spaces. They offered a safe and secure place for women to spend their days browsing and shopping and eating and being entertained. Le Bon Marché in Paris, Whiteley’s in London or Stewart’s in New York were exotic destinations where customers got to see and touch and experience luxury products which would not have been available to them before. These were truly experiential spaces. In Le Bon Marché, for instance, husbands could retreat to the reading or smoking room while their wives shopped, there was entertainment for children and the building housed a winter garden. Meanwhile, Derry and Toms on High Street Kensington boasted the famous Roof Garden. The department store altered shopping habits. It made retail fun.
Today’s department store needs a fresh rethink. And the possibilities are endless. With so much of the act of a purchase – the money exchange – happening online, physical retail of the 2020s is liberated to be a high-concept performance space. Their role should be in consumer recruitment through desire, rather than sales. And this requires much more imaginative branding than simply laying out rows and rows of clothes and cosmetics. It means a high-design and highly-curated environment that is constantly evolving.
Some brands are already exploring the possibilities. Showfields in New York, for instance, deploys a ‘phygital’ set-up that offers direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands a highly curated physical presence with store and marketing data handed directly to them to help grow their appeal. Elsewhere, from its outlets in London, Tokyo, Beijing and Los Angeles, the cultish Dover Street Market operates like a street market albeit with artistically curated exclusive items to be more akin to a gallery than a retail store.
Some of the older department stores are also transforming their model to engage with new consumer behaviour. From its Edwardian splendour on Oxford Street, Selfridges is successfully using a media-style, issues-driven approach encouraging hosted brands to create exciting, engaging, and memorable relations with the consumer. Selfridges actively encourages DTC activities and hosts pop-up shops. Instead of using metrics for measuring a store’s success – as in sales per-square-foot and year-on-year sales – it is using metrics that impact on brand impression, digital purchase intent, inspiration per-square-foot, return-on-friction, convenience for associates and customer experience.
In addition, and in a highly zeitgeisty fashion, Selfridges has introduced a designer rental service to quote, ‘transform the way we think about, shop for and find joy in fashion’, and it is planning a vegan butchers – all under the ‘Project Earth’ sustainability banner. Going one step further and playing on the almost religious side of shopping, the Oxford Street location has been given the license to conduct weddings.
In China, retail is even more adventurous and, in many ways, is leading the way. The Chinese model is firmly anchored on the idea of providing spaces for fun and entertainment. In Beijing for example, the London-based architect Sybarite is working on a project with lux brand SKP-S to create a ‘Mars Zone’ which sees life size spaceships offer a highly immersive (and Instagramable) zone in the heart of the city.
The future of the department store could be hugely exciting. There is so much potential but brands need to see themselves less as sales stores and more as exciting and experiential spaces, adventure zones that excite the imagination. The transactions can and will happen elsewhere.
Images: Selfridges Rental initiative © Selfridges; Chotto Matte’s club-style experiential dining experience © Spinach Branding.
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