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‘Technology is still a tool and requires a skilled eye to apply it for best effect’

By Retail4Growth Team | March 30, 2021

James Breaks, Associate Director (Design) at rpa:group, London, writes on what makes for an authentic retail experience in the post pandemic world , one that drives a meaningful brand experience and engagement

James Breaks, Associate Director (Design), rpa:groupWith the prevalence of omnichannel thinking, it is very tempting to consider quantity as a measure of success – the more channels the better. This was never the case pre-pandemic, nor will it be as we evolve through it. Instead, as the pandemic has touched all aspects of our lives and forced us to redefine our ‘normal', the time has come to reconsider our definitions and approach to retail thinking.

We tend to define retail in terms of physical and ‘other’; physical retail being a bricks-and-mortar presence, and ‘other’ being the multitude of experiences and events, many of which are technology-driven, that may vary in their effectiveness. 

There is no argument that physical touch is one of the key senses that has served retail most efficiently throughout its history. At a subconscious psychological level, we still measure the value of something by gauging its weight, or its intrinsic qualities by its texture and feel. It still holds true today that products that feel heavier, relative to a competitor’s product, will be judged to be of superior value. 

However, human experience extends well beyond this singular sense, and our approach to retail should fundamentally consider this. By addressing the other four senses, we create our building blocks for lasting, authentic customer experiences and true engagement. To shape these experiences, we also need to reflect on the brand’s core values and use them to inform our use of the senses. 

Two great examples of sensory experiences on the High Street are beauty brands Lush and L’Occitane. They belong to the same sector but harness their core values and brand assets in different but by no means less effective ways.

The sheer power of the aroma wafting from Lush’s open shop fronts permeates for a considerable stretch of any high street, so that by the time the customer reaches the store, their senses have been activated, inspired and their mind is primed to shop. Clear and abundant display drives ease of selection and price points suit the accessibility of the product. There is a simplicity that matches not only the brand ethos, but the price point too and creates a harmony that is hard to refuse.

Alongside this experience, but at a different price point is L’Occitane. The brand has a strong storytelling tradition based in its artisan production and rooted in its heritage. In contrast to Lush, it’s Regent Street Store in London is an oasis of low product density and generous dwell-spaces, that include large communal sinks to bathe hands and sample product, as well as large scale storytelling screens and interactive graphics.

As a point of difference, L’Occitane uses all the senses to communicate its story, investing in the store to deliver a rounded and satisfying customer experience. Lush focuses on a single sense to drive product access and ease of purchase. Both provide a similarly engaging and enduring experience by appropriately applying their values to the senses. For both brands the memory of the experience permeates the sub-conscious and generates genuine attachment to the brand.

Arguably, the experiences are enhanced by specific location and budget – however, successful brand experiences are scalable, can translate to any location and deliver brand continuity.

Another example of harmonious brand values and sensory parity is the Sonos store. The connectivity brand creates a physical store that focuses on the aural component of the senses. The visual tone of the bricks-and-mortar environment has a clarity that is concurrent with the superior audio-quality of the brand. Stores are simply styled with a domestic tone that reflects the customer’s own experience and aspirations and use materials that hint at a music or performance studio origin. There is very little visual text beyond wayfinding, and a suggestion that infers direct interaction with staff is encouraged.  

Sonos’ key offer is based in-and-of technology and so we expect connectivity and interaction within the retail concept – but in a surprising contrast to a large amount of reactive retail design, the Sonos experience is limited largely to the product and its service itself – the concept avoids the bells and whistles of interactive display and AR/VR – maintaining a concept that addresses pure aural senses and in so doing, enhances the perceived quality of the brand.

As with L’Occitane and Lush, the brand values absolutely permeate the Sonos experience and provide genuine engagement, that is once again scalable and mobile.

So, with examples like this - where do we go beyond the physical? What about the incredible technology available to retailers? We can see from the previous examples how appropriate use of technology can bring value to the customer experience without obscuring its brand values – one of the most positive aspects of digital engagement is its accessibility and scalability.

What retailers need to remember is that when all is said and done, technology is still a tool and requires a skilled eye to apply it for best effect.

IKEA has developed a two-pronged approach with its use of technology. The ubiquitous brand uses its Augmented Reality ‘Place’ App to help customers to visualise their furniture within the context of their homes, and its further digital experimentation has focused on its product governance and sustainability. 

The Place app makes a visual connection for the customer, removing the uncertainty of choice and the risk of having to return products – this generates a preliminary feeling of ownership and satisfaction that increases conversion rates. This engagement is immediate and customised to the user – developing a strong feeling of attachment and ease in the process. 

By developing optional VR storytelling opportunities in-store IKEA can educate its customers and expand the brand experience, while increasing dwell-time and engagement with the brand. VR allows the customer to choose the level of storytelling they wish to interact with and removes some of the burden of prioritising brand communication, that could obscure the physical customer journey.

Engagement is always a choice and impact can be made easily with technology, but it is the substance of the engagement that will be retained by a customer, will be remembered and will be what generates loyalty in the future. 

Bricks-and-mortar stores challenge retailers to actively engage through their sales staff and the sensory experiences congruent with the brand. Digital experiences, especially AR/VR should similarly reflect this active engagement, they should never be passive. AR/VR has a reduced capacity to engage all of our senses, so their strengths should be celebrated and enhanced in their role of challenging, informing and educating the customer. These forms of engagement should tell stories, add layers to the brand and not repeat the obvious – this will always be true, despite evolution and further advances in technology.

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