From the incremental to the radical, the digitally focused to the resolutely physical, brands need to innovate around space to stay on top of their customers’ expectations, explains Crowd DNA innovation knowledge leader, Aurelie Jamard...

More than ever, retail environments are facing intense challenges due to the growing appeal and convenience of online shopping – and various brands are turning to new technologies to help re-invent their store experience. We’re also seeing interesting shifts from digital to physical, and virtual reality blurring the boundaries between online and offline. Time to explore this area in more detail.

Customer needs are converging

Hot from the press, we hear announcements that Amazon are planning to open physical pop up shops in the US, and John Lewis wanting to experiment with beacons and virtual reality in their UK stores. So what does this mean for the future of retail, and how do these announcements reflect customer needs (if at all)? Customers’ expectations are rapidly changing and strongly influenced by peers, brand experiences and the latest innovations that become accessible to them. Online shopping has grown in popularity, enabling young customers to snap the best deals and allowing parents to shop on their terms, any time, anywhere, and without the kids. On the other hand, shopping in store gives them what websites are still strongly lacking: a feel for the products and a true brand experience. But lack of time, greater choice and technological developments mean that customers have grown to expect a consistent and integrated shopping experience across channels.

Technology as an enabler

The explosion of technological innovations has broadened retailers’ options and created opportunities that would have been unimaginable a few years back, such as being virtually teleported from anywhere in the world to the top of London’s Tower 42, courtesy of Marriott, or visualising pieces of IKEA furniture in our own homes without lifting a finger off our smartphones. So from VR (Virtual Reality) to AR (Augmented Reality), Google Glass to Kinect, and beacons to drones, there is a plethora of options that are being developed and experimented with by brands to make their in-store experience more relevant and entertaining to shoppers. Some brands like Topshop have fully embraced these, and their latest endeavours include offering a virtual reality catwalk in their Oxford Circus store as part of this year’s London Fashion Week, as well as creating a Kinect-enabled AR mirror to re-create the illusion of a fitting room in one of their stores in Russia. Other brands that have embraced AR include Converse, De Beers, American Apparel and Sephora.

Experiences (are all that) matter

But retail experiences are not only the product of great technology put to good use. They can also harness the power of social and experimentation, as IKEA and AirBnB’s partnership in Australia shows, enabling visitors to book sleepovers (and try pieces of furniture at the same time) in IKEA stores overnight. Testing products in store is another way to provide added value to customers. In Germany, outdoor sports retailer Globetrotter boasts a four-storey shop including a pool, a cold room and a shower to enable customers to test the equipment and clothing before making a purchase decision.

So innovating with space around the needs of end users is crucial to any brand with a physical retail presence (and even without one as Amazon and Google rumours suggest…). It can include technology but doesn’t have to; it can be incremental or radically different; it can appeal to one or all of the senses; it can be about display, product experimentation or payment. But one thing is certain: it has to be shaped around customer needs and work with the brand’s vision, as our work with the likes of Topshop has proven.

At Crowd DNA we use various methodologies to uncover insights around end users, but also around space, starting with in-situ work and testing findings against our cultural strategy framework. If you want to know more and/or have a chat about the ever-changing retail landscape, drop me a line.