Reviving Retail?

What retailers are actually looking for is offering the right kind of new experience, something that doesn’t make the consumer feel uncool; something that offers them something truly different to what they can get online.

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2018 was yet another bad year for retail: footfall fell for thirteen months straight until December. This, in itself, shouldn’t be much of a surprise to anyone who has even vaguely read or watched the news for the past few years. Amongst the beleaguered high street fashion brands are, admittedly, the usual suspects:  M&S features highly in reports, and the store announced only this week it would focussing more on food from now on. What’s less obvious is that retails woes have affected even those stores traditionally considered more stable.Even Topshop- a store without which no shopping trip of mine from Years 9 to 13 felt complete- has suffered this year.   So what can be done to revive in-store shopping?

A huge focus has been pinned onto the slightly nebulous term ‘ experience.’ Retail experts and stores alike are convinced the thing to revive retail is giving the consumer some kind of ‘extra factor’ in store which entices them to physical shopping. But this in itself doesn’t necessarily mark a change from what retail has always been. In a sense, the job of retail has always been to offer an experience. Shopping centres, were, in their day, revolutionary:  there, for the first time, shopping was transformed into a day out.  Alongside shops were restaurants, as well as, though somewhat less commonly, entertainment experiences; bowling, mini- golf, cinemas. As a consequence, what the  modern consumer wants is not just any old experience, but a new kind of experience.

Ways to plug this gap have been largely technology-focussed, as you might expect.  Virtual reality has been a popular starting point for many brick-and-mortar retailers, and has been put to use by companies as various as Topshop, Tommy Hilfiger, and Coach. Many opt for virtual reality in changing rooms, in some cases uses virtual reality mirrors offering consumers a way to see themselves simultaneously from all angles, or compare two outfits on them at the same time. Tommy Hilfiger’s more creative response, way back in 2015, was to enable visitors using virtual reality headset to immerse themselves in a recording of the line’s Autumn/ Winter show for that year.  There’s a reason, however, that we haven’t seen these rolled out everywhere. In the case of the latter, I suspect the virtual reality headset is somewhat jarring in the context of a high-end fashion store. We go to high-end fashion stores, or any fashion store, for that matter, to see objects of beauty. And if the objects are not beautiful – no end to the brutalist trainer trend is in sight- then they had better be cool. The problem is that virtual reality headsets are neither beautiful nor cool. With the former, we can question whether it really offers the consumer anything different to online shopping. Just how good, really, is the virtual reality mirror? And will it ever match just trying on one more item of clothing?  If there’s no change in experience, then it’s easy to see why customers won’t go the extra mile.

So what retailers are actually looking for is offering the right kind of new experience. It’s got to be something that doesn’t make the consumer feel uncool, and secondly, something that offers them something truly different to what they can get online.  The key word here is ‘exclusivity.’ In a generation that prides itself on its individualism- both in a philosophical and sartorial sense- the most successful retail experience is one that offers the consumer a sense of uniqueness; an experience that can’t be had just as easily in one town as in the next. It’s an area of the current fashion climate that has once again been mastered by Emily Weiss’ Glossier. Glossier has only two stores worldwide: Los Angeles and New York. Not only this, but each store has a different theme, maximizing the uniqueness of the  experience. It’s also worth noting that Glossier refers to its stores as ‘showrooms’; highlighting their position A) as distinct from the ordinary retail experience and b) as an add-on to the brand’s major point of sale; it’s website.

Through this method, Glossier has managed to square a circle in a way it’s not clear that older high street brands will ever be able to emulate. Glossier appeals to vast numbers of consumers. It has 1.9 million Instagram followers, and with cleansers retailing at as low as £10, its prices are not exclusive.  But it still manages, in part through clever branding, in part through retail, to appeal to the modern customer’s individualism. It would be dramatic to say this spells the end of retail;  but it might be a good indication as to which brick-and-mortar stores are going to really succeed in the coming years.

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