Retail’s more fulfilling future

Studies show there's huge appetite for a reset. According to a YouGov poll, just 9% of people want the world to revert to its pre-lockdown state. Research recently carried out by venturethree - ‘The Future People Want’ - found that 94% would like to see ‘a fairer society’ and 86% of people believe brands have a vital role to play in making changes happen.

Change at a societal level is about so much more than the obvious and the immediate – like making it easier for high street shoppers to browse or buy ‘safely’. Brand is the sum total of all the associations we have - only those putting transparently progressive thinking into action, at every touchpoint, will be genuinely future-fit.

Every store is a stage

The enduring challenge for B&M retail is to offer must-have experiences that shoppers cannot get online. That requires fundamental change. Remember retail therapy? It’s time for a come-back. But bigger, bolder, more exciting.

With click and collect so well established, e-commerce no longer has the monopoly on limitless inventory. But to thrive in the future, well-resourced B&M can and must offer more. It needs to become the stage that draws shoppers into brand stories, delivering remarkable experiences that galvanize brands’ relationships with their consumers.

Outside of grocery and other essential categories, B&M retailers need to think about their spaces, not as four walls filled with inventory, but as extraordinary experiences. Media-rich performances, where sales consultants inspire with give ideas and advice. Where smart screens and interactive changing rooms (like those recently unveiled in adidas’s London flagship) can help you construct an outfit, a party, a room or a car.

Imagine the store as a place of constant inspiration, experimentation and change – with pop-ups offering opportunities for bite-sized, low-risk immersive experiences, one-off events and exclusive merchandise that give shoppers strong reasons to visit and return. Where local brands and craft can be showcased and celebrated and where personalisation is table stakes. Where front-of-house is the stage for lust-after displays, entertainment and escapism and stock no longer clutters the floorspace. Back-of-house is reserved for support services and inventory – purchases brought to the shopper freshly-packaged when they leave, or home-delivered. More motivation, less friction.

Blurring the boundaries

Consumers are already on this trajectory. By 2025, according to a survey by Westfield, 59% of shoppers expect the majority of retail space to be dedicated to experiences. And they know what they want - a choice of creativity, wellness and gaming offers, as well as self-improvement, training and education. It’s a whole different level of ‘purchase fulfilment’.

Given this blurring of leisure-time boundaries, 47% of respondents to the Westfield survey said they want to see Netflix stores and 33% want Spotify shops. There’s certain to be a TikTok angle too: perhaps in-store studios where you can get your endorphin hit by creating highly-produced podcasts and videos, to give your online persona a makeover.

We already know that some element of working-from-home is here for the foreseeable. Retail has the opportunity now to become a real social counterpoint. Shops with rooftop bars and restaurants yes, but people want more - co-working, child-care, even dating spaces.

Regenerative cool

Shoppers are increasingly voting with their wallets when social media alerts them to sweatshops, exploited staff and flagrantly bad service. Mindful of their poor eco-creds, more savvy fashion brands are exploring the ‘circular opportunity’. Regenerated ranges are cool - from Prada’s sell-out Re-Nylon collection for Selfridges’ Project Earth initiative, to this summer’s swimwear collections from the likes of Cos and Boden. And incentives for recycling in store are ramping up too.

Of course, the most sustainable piece of clothing is the one you already own. The ratings success of The Repair Shop, the BBC’s primetime family treasure restoration show, is one of the many signs of our anxiety about a disposable culture. Expect to see more mainstream stores and brands copying Nudie Jeans Repair Shops’ ‘free repairs forever’ service, for everything from clothes to tech to homewares. A kind of return to the shop as workshop, where we get to appreciate the skills and meet the craftspeople. We’ll end up paying more to own fewer things, sure, but we’ll love them and they’ll last.

While circular fashion takes hold, 17% of younger shoppers recently still said they wouldn’t wear an outfit twice if they’d already posted it on social media. Step forward clothing rental - pioneered by Rent The Runway, but now also being rolled out to Selfridges and selected H&Ms.

Retail must earn its place

The arrival of Covid-19 might seem like a sink-or-swim event, but B&M retail is in an ongoing state of existential crisis. Take heart, the pandemic hasn’t made people’s desire for meaning, entertainment and community evaporate. If anything, we value those things even more now.

What matters to us is changing, a brand that is genuinely progressive – a true agent for sustainable change – can jump-start a business turnaround. B&M retail that embraces the opportunity to enthral, play therapist, give consumers somewhere to reconnect and feel validated, will be the beacons others envy and want to emulate. But the time to change is now. As self-styled ‘Retail Prophet’ Doug Stephens commented, “You can create the thing that kills your current business – or you can wait for someone else to do it.” Own the disruption.