City Limits Volume Six: Retail Therapy

We're imagining the future of IRL retail in our sixth edition of City Limits. As the sector emerges from the storm, we explore the next big retail trends, the semiotics of the experience economy, what global brands can learn from local indies, and why we'll all be back shopping in no time.


Much was made in the rather unique (we hope) year of 2020 of Covid-19 as an ‘accelerant’ – not so much instigating disruption as notching its trajectory up a gear. And this intensified pace of change has been felt in few places more keenly, or savagely, than retail. Case in point: doubtless we’ve all encountered Boomer-aged family or friends whose appetite for online shopping has skyrocketed through necessity this year.

But though much looks bleak for the high street, as this latest edition of City Limits – Crowd DNA’s ongoing exploration of the changing urban experience – seeks to declare, all is not lost. While an increase of fresh thinking is long overdue, we steadfastly refuse to believe there won’t be a place for browsing in real stores in the future; for seeing, touching, feeling products; gaining a deeper sense of connection with the brands we love; for the in-person social experience. Of course, digital will overlap with this in countless ways but that in itself offers fascinating potential.

And so the Retail Therapy edition of City Limits anticipates less sofa-bound times ahead. We look at the concept stores that will give people a reason to head back into town. We interrogate the semiotics of shopping in the context of the experience economy. We review the big retail trends, celebrate the lasting appeal of pop-ups, discover what global brands can learn from local indies in APAC – and we even spot a future for the much-maligned shopping mall (really).

Here’s hoping we soon can get back out into the cities that, despite their imperfections, we all love so much. And a bit of shopping, while we’re out there experiencing, interacting, learning, filling ourselves with new ideas, that sounds pretty good to us.

Andy Crysell, group managing director, Crowd DNA

IRL Innovations Worth A Browse

Retail Reimagined

Changing consumer priorities are redefining what a store should do, say and sell

Canada Goose, The Journey – Toronto 

With zero inventory kept on site, The Journey offers a multi-sensory experience instead. Customers are able to try on the brand’s iconic coats in an arctic-style ‘cold room’ (set at a chilling -12 degrees). If the garment passes the test, they can order one in-store to have delivered home the next day. 

adidas Originals – London

56 percent of Gen Z ignore clothing labels and shop outside of their gender, according to Wunderman Thompson. adidas is ahead of the curve, having removed gender entirely from its new store in London’s Soho. This allows shoppers to focus on their sport and the products without colours, styles or stereotypes impacting their decisions. 

Moncler, House Of Genius – Milan, Paris, Tokyo, LA

One of the most hyped retail stories of the year was Moncler’s temporary takeover of multiple cities. The luxury brand collaborated with local designers to create limited edition items in each location – from rubix cubes to headphones – all tagged with a city-inspired emblem. Blurring fashion and art, global and local, Genius offered an experience like a small, neighbourhood art gallery, far from the confines of strict fashion seasons.

Changing Rooms 

Flexible and adaptable spaces with room for creative flair are leading the way

Off-White – Miami

Using ‘what’s the role of a physical store?’ as its starting point, the fashion label’s flagship has been modified to cater to multiple, ever-changing consumer needs. At the moment, the space turns from a store to a catwalk – but the idea is that it never becomes fixed. It could be a cafe one season, a wellness centre the next. Limited storage for stock means it can easily be transformed for a variety of activities and cultural events.

Singapore Airlines, Pop-Up Restaurants – Singapore

Asking people to pay for plane food might seem like a dead end, but Singapore Airlines’ in-flight cuisine is legendary. So, in a year where travel almost ground to a halt, the airline changed tact by hosting dining experiences inside two of its grounded A380s. A clever use of unused space and way to keep its award-winning service top of mind, the first batch of tickets sold out in 30 minutes.

Kroger x InFarm, Pick Your Own – Seattle

American grocery chain Kroger partnered with startup InFarm to create a series of living farms. The vertical structures grow products like herbs and lettuce, and shrink the supply chain by removing the need for transportation and storage. The farms also alter a grocery store’s purpose; a place not just to shop, but to grow a whole new sustainable food system in the city.

Digital Integrations

A spotlight on offline stores that outshine, not just mirror, their online equivalents

Burberry – Shenzhen

Collaborating with WeChat, Burberry recently launched an app allowing shoppers to create avatar profiles and earn ‘social currency’ through a rewards program, which then unlocks new content such as bespoke avatar outfits and exclusive dishes at the in-store cafe. Visitors can also use the app to interact with window displays and play their own music in the fitting rooms.

Nike, House Of Innovation – Paris

The latest House Of Innovation features new personalisation options, including the first version of an interactive Mission Control wall, which lets shoppers find other athletes in their city, and connect to both the local and global sports community. There’s also an AI-enhanced bra fit offer that uses machine learning to recommend precise fits across any Nike product. 

Tempur-Pedic – New York

Assuming a mattress is an item most customers would rather shop for IRL, Tempur has digitally enhanced its flagship store. Mattresses are displayed in art-like installations that reflect natural surroundings. The beds sense when people lay on them, prompting changes in the environment; lights dim and the displays of rainforests or beaches turn to sunset.

In Defence Of The Mall

We trace the cultural relevance of shopping centres to see how they’re holding their own against online – and what the future might hold for the much-maligned mall  

As the emblem of brick-and-mortar shopping, malls are being shrouded in prophecies of doom, predicting that a structure based on convenience stands no chance against drones and next-day delivery. But the idea of a mall as simply an enclosed haven of convenience is a bit of a misnomer. Convenient, sure, but there’s always been much more going on. 

The shopping mall as we know it was first built in Minnesota in 1956. It was originally intended as a social meeting place: Austrian architect Victor Gruen hoped to emulate the city centre of Vienna and spawn a community hub of art, entertainment and retail. Look further back along the line of shopping centres – medieval market stalls in English cities, arcades in 18th century Paris, centuries-old bazaars in Istanbul – and the social function of these spaces is the common thread. The language we use to embellish malls – galleries, arcades, promenades  is also all about display; about seeing and being seen. While convenience shopping has long since moved online, the cultural relevance of these social hubs remains strong.

Shopping centres have been described as a ‘third space’; a neutral place that opens up for social participation in public life. For the teenage mallrats of the 1980s, they represented a setting far less scrutinised than home or school. In some countries, malls came to offer a neutralising element in gender disparity, appealing to women as a safe place to socialise, and to couples who didn’t have parental approval as a place to meet. Malls have created opportunities for diverse social experiences on the one hand, and polarised and drawn up boundaries around class differences on the other. There’s an inherent paradox to their structure: privatised buildings with regulated hours and security staff, that are also so fundamental to urban fabric that they are key platforms for social experimentation and political demonstration. They’ve been the sites of protests across the world – from student strikes in San Juan, to pro-democracy stunts in Hong Kong. Unsurprising, considering that malls in HK are so deeply embedded in the urban architecture that a single commute might go through multiple shopping centres; or, in lieu of a lobby, some apartment buildings open directly into the promenade of a mall. 

While convenience shopping has long since moved online, the cultural relevance of these social hubs remains strong.

Expectations for what a shopping mall should be (and how they push back against online retail) are brought to life in London’s Westfield Destination 2028. It’s a concept that puts social and sensory experiences at the core of retail design. In this vision, malls go beyond convenience and into the realm of wellness. It features an AI-boosted micro-city with waterways, green spaces, social hubs and workshops around mindfulness and community. Integrating spaces for reflection and interaction into the foundations of futuristic shopping centres takes us right back to the initial vision of Victor Gruen and foregrounds destination over function – something shoppers will likely cherish after 2020.

This functional malleability and the social significance of malls is their sticking power. Now, to adapt even further to the age of e-commerce, our city’s shopping centres are prioritising disruptive, sensory and cerebral experiences. They’re becoming less about content and more about concept. A prime example being the prolific K11 art mall in Hong Kong, which is reinventing the cultural cache of shopping. Featuring installations, live entertainment and sensorially immersive shops, K11 is described as an ‘art playground’ and is emblematic of how retail in the East is leading the way in innovative experiences. SKP-S Beijing, a futuristic offshoot of the original luxury destination, is another example full of surreal additions, including a field of robotic sheep and martian history lessons. Where efficiency and standardisation used to signal comfort and reliability, retail is beginning to look more like a series of mini theme parks. We’re seeing highly stylised, experiential malls that focus on the here-and-now and encourage customers to buy online later.

Forum, Groningen

Billed as a 'cultural department store', the Forum is a hybrid library, science museum, meeting space and catch-all hangout. It resembles a shopping mall, but puts the emphasis on interaction rather than sales.

Westfield: Destination 2028, London

This concept design imagines the shopping mall of the future – wellness-focused and smart-tech boosted, with touchless technology and AI shaped consumer journeys.

K11 Musea, Hong Kong

The latest in the K11 cultural kingdom, the complex hosts high-concept architectural design alongside over 70 restaurants, 40 art exhibitions and hands-on educational programs, as well as a rooftop garden, 'living walls' and green spaces.

Our city’s shopping centres are becoming less about content and more about concept.

Art Of Shopping

The semiotics of creative retail in an experience economy

For many of us, cities represent a type of shopping characterised by thrill seeking and inspiration. This presents a challenge for retailers. How can they cut through and create meaningful engagement with their audience? Here, we’ve used semiotics to unpick three innovative shopping spaces. Using this method, we’ll show how outlets that borrow from the art world can capture imagination while still driving sales and enhancing the shopping experience in a meaningful way.

Immersive Art: Recontextualising Products

Korean glasses brand Gentle Monster opened its London flagship in 2018. The store is a continuation of the brand’s famously creative and conceptual approach to retail. Stepping inside is like walking into an art gallery. The store is spatially and visually dominated by sculptures that shake and move, producing rustling sounds and a sense of unpredictable spectacle. The products themselves sit among the sculptures, coding them as works of art too. It’s a discombobulating experience where the idea of buying something becomes both intimidating and compelling.

Unlike most galleries, you’re invited to try things on, pick them up and examine them. The immersive quality of Gentle Monster’s retail environment reimagines the purpose of purchase. Through a nifty and playful exploration on how the product impacts the consumer – glasses change the way you see things, allow you to look for longer and transform your appearance – Gentle Monster dramatises the shopping experience to transform the instinctive and subtle into loud, compelling and irresistible.

Sonic Art: Reinventing Retail Therapy

Entireworld is a brand that has thrived in the digital shopping arena. The LA-based leisurewear company that sells ‘the stuff you live in’ has had huge appeal during a period when we’re all confined to our homes. The name also has the added benefit of resonating with consumers for whom staying indoors has literally become their entire world. What’s more, the pastel coloured, soft cut cloth of the garments speak to that emotionally reassuring feeling of childhood pyjamas – a need for comfort most of us have sought out recently. 

But a visit to the store reveals there’s more to Entireworld than meets the eye. The website is accompanied by a soothing, ambient soundtrack. We hear softly evolving organ music layered with sounds of waves, birds and children playing. The modulating tune is gently interrupted by distant sounds of sirens and dogs barking. This range immerses the shopper in the full gamut of everyday life, but couches it in the relaxing tones of a massage soundscape. The outside world is hinted at, but the experience on the site codes a cocoon. This semiotically positions Entireworld as not cutting us off from life, but allowing enjoyment in a comfortable, meditative state. In a time where people are seeking calm, this musical innovation is a powerful step that keeps us on the site for pleasure beyond purchase.

Living Installations: Bringing The Inside Out

In August 2020, the streets of Tokyo’s Harajuku district played host to another art inspired retail innovation. Passersby of the IKEA store could peer in and see virtual influencer, Imma, living out her personal life in a fake apartment for the Happiness At Home campaign. Imma’s domestic life was visible from the street, as well as being broadcast live at the nearby Harajuku station. Anyone could watch as she folded clothes, watched TV and slept; mundane tasks we’re all familiar with. 

By creating an art installation that celebrates the details of everyday life, IKEA codes the home as something that anyone can find creativity in and treat with more care. This is a particularly resonant idea at the moment. In cities the world over, people have been reconfiguring their homes into offices and restaurants, as well as spaces of rest and relaxation. IKEA is coding this limiting necessity as an opportunity to explore and open up our worlds through art.

These three examples demonstrate how using big, creative ideas to explore the changing demands of everyday life help build connection over and above necessity. In addition to sparking thrills, consumers are looking for multi-sensory stimulation like Entireworld; access to thoughtful reflection on how we live, as per the IKEA installation; and the opportunity to buy into an elevated brand experience, like Gentle Monster. Retail can drive meaning – and sales – through tapping into the greater human experiences that we often look to art to explain.

Pop(Up) Culture

Will pop-ups finally fulfil their promise to save our city’s high streets? 

In a distant land not so far away, online shopping was the underdog of retail. Many of us were convinced that a digital interface could never fully replace the experience of being in-store. Now, physical retail is fighting for survival, competing against the convenience and rapid expansion of e-commerce. Last year, from Copenhagen to Berlin, EY reported that at least 40 percent of Europe’s urban population were visiting stores less frequently. Then, of course, there was Covid.

But as online shopping has claimed dominance, pop-ups have remained resilient over the years. The trend first got going around 2010 as the ‘retail apocalypse’ took hold and empty stores became a common sight. Pop-ups were touted as one of the saviours of our city’s high streets and, while they have moved in and out of fashion over the decade, they’ve remained a constant presence in cities. Now, these temporary, physical spaces are finally coming into their own.  

In a survey by Retail Dive, the number one reason people still chose to visit shops was ‘the need to see, touch, feel and try out items’. The digital experience can never truly replicate the physical, and so retailers need to plan for a future that combines both. Pop-ups now offer the perfect opportunity to take this multi-faceted approach to retail. 

For starters, they create more touchpoints for brands to earn a greater share of our attention. Instead of being bombarded by messages across platforms and channels, or weighed down by the restrictions of a permanent store, pop-ups can present quick, fun and memorable experiences that have a lasting impact when we later browse online. Sometimes, the pop-up need not even generate revenue, acting as a shop window for e-commerce instead; or like an art installation, where visitors are sensorially-stimulated and can place online orders for later. New York’s Showfields encourages brands to take this multi-faceted approach. It invites internet-only labels to become part of its experiential pop-up for a monthly fee, allowing consumers to ‘meet’ new brands that they can buy later online.

Cities inspire us with their promise of change and discovery, and the concept of a temporary, fleeting shop fuels this.

This focus on experience complements shoppers’ need for discovery. Spontaneity and the ability to provide serendipitous moments can be difficult for brands to achieve, but pop-ups have always delivered. Likewise, cities inspire us with their promise of change and newness – and the concept of a temporary, fleeting shop fuels this. Glossier has played with this perception throughout its pop-up strategy. The cult beauty brand uses temporary spaces in tune with a city’s identity (see its very floral, Floral Street London pop-up), to test the brand appetite in new countries. And though the Glossier experience is intentionally targeted at IRL joy and spend, it’s also designed with Instagram front of mind – marrying up the offline-online journey once again. 

Glossier is seen as the queen of pop-ups and newcomers are following suit by taking low risk opportunities to test out physical stores. This is the ethos behind Appear Here, a global marketplace for short term retail in cities designed to disrupt a commercial space once ruled by established brands. They have a network of 160,000 brands and over 6,000 urban spaces. With a significant number of vacant slots due to Covid, their offering is the third reason why pop-ups are booming. It appeals to landlords needing quick rent; small brands without the security to commit to long leases; and big brands who want to go where their customers currently are. In Summer 2020, Dior launched Dior Riviera across Mediterranean cities to catch its clientele on their holidays. 

This kind of adaptable city planning, paired with the allure of discovery and promise of greater brand interaction paves the way for retail led by pop-ups. While online is becoming the key distribution channel, physical retail spots in cities are still where brands make true connections – even when there are no humans there to staff it. Singtel’s unmanned, fully transportable pop-ups in Singapore feature video kiosks with real advisors, self-service vending machines and roaming bots to facilitate any kind of service needed. In a world where pop-ups finally reign, Singtel shows us how city retail could look: temporary, fleeting and unmanned, but not inhuman.

Four Future Retail Trends

Being able to browse in-store will always have a place in the shopping experience – it might just look a little different. Here’s four trends to track as we move into a new era of retail 

2020 undoubtedly hit our city’s high streets hard. But while many elements have changed, this year has also opened the door for creative and speedy innovation. More brands are enjoying the freedom to think outside the box, from drive-in fashion shows to AR filters; and, particularly in cities where our space is already limited, shops are borrowing ideas from other sectors, crossing boundaries to deliver new solutions to shoppers. Here are four trends to keep an eye on in the new era of retail.

1. Tech Workarounds

We’re beginning to understand and appreciate AR’s use case beyond entertainment. And, in a climate where touching products is frowned upon, brands are using the technology to remove it from the equation altogether. Some are using AR to mimic trying on items. Warby Parker lets shoppers try on its glasses using AR, forgoing contact, returns and a trip to the store. Similarly, the Nike Fit app scans users’ feet, giving them an accurate sizing and chance to see how shoes would look before purchase. As hygiene and safety continue to be front of mind, touch-free workarounds will become increasingly expected and favoured. 

2. Joyful Flourishes 

Retailers have been forced to streamline their in-store experiences. This often means shoppers miss out on the joys of browsing, leaving many nostalgic for the days of going to the shops for fun. An answer comes from China: Singles’ Day, the largest shopping event of the year, which transcended even more borders in 2020. In the US alone, $116 billion was spent at Alibaba and, clearly rivaling Black Friday. The gamification of promotions and huge, live-streamed events counter the loneliness of a sanitised store and the mundanity of regular online shopping. This year, the retailer Taobao hosted a game where shoppers dressed up virtual cats to earn bigger discounts. Consumers looking for connections in cities will start leaning harder into such experiences to regain the community aspect of shopping. 

3. Beyond Buildings

Rather than stick to the confines of a brick-and-mortar store, which often come with stricter social distancing guidelines, brands are starting to break free of four walls. For example, instead of hosting a traditional fashion show, Pyer Moss presented its new line by screening a documentary at a drive-in movie. Similarly, Ford launched its new Bronco outside the New York Stock Exchange, with no showroom in sight. While the area is no longer the packed commuting route it once was, it still features regularly on the news and presents an interesting backdrop for cars. Brands are being forced to think creatively about space – expect more location-based activations, and not just on our high streets. 

4. Supporting Second Hand 

Hesitations about sanitary precautions initially slowed rental subscription services and second hand shopping. However, with the ongoing economic consequences of the pandemic, there’s a new need and appreciation for rentals and resale items – particularly clothing. US retailers, from Walmart to Madewell, are offering surplus products to ThreadUp, an app enabling brands to sell second hand items at a lower price. And while local thrift stores are hurting, the digital recycling space is making second hand clothing exchange borderless. Across the US, Poshmark lets users profit from their unwanted clothing, promoting exchange and connection from big cities to small towns. 

As we head forward, we should consider leaving our perceptions of ‘normal’ retail behind. While we may feel nostalgic for many elements of the shopping experience, we can celebrate the innovation and creativity sparked by 2020’s confines. Our shops may look different and remain in a stage of transition, but we can look forward to a future filled with retail experiences that are thoughtful, convenient and exciting.

Learnings From Local

Support for small, local and independent businesses is booming. We spoke to retailers in cities across APAC to hear what lessons ‘big’ brands can learn from the ‘little’ guys 

Shopping has always played a huge part in the social fabric of cities. Far from being just a storefront and place of trade, local retailers are the glue that holds the culture of a city together. As Georgie Cleary, co-founder of Melbourne-based clothing label, Alpha 60, told us: “We act like tourist bureaus. People want to know about the city and what’s happening tonight. Many of our customers know our staff; they come in for a chat, with no intention of buying anything.” 

Before Covid-19, local retail seemed to be in strife. The globalisation of international megastores had begun to homogenise the retail landscape the world over. Then, with more people turning to e-commerce during lockdowns, this trend was forecast to accelerate. But, curiously, things have turned out differently. From the economic devastation of the pandemic comes a renewed support for local businesses. To hear from the shop floor, we spoke to three retailers and a placemaking strategist based in cities across APAC. Here are their stories and words of wisdom for brands keen to navigate the local landscape.

While conscious consumption is nothing new, 2020 has ushered in the next iteration: the ‘locally conscious’ consumer. These people are highly aware of the impact their decisions make on companies and communities around them. A recent report by the Global Web Index found that one in two people are anticipating a shift to local, in-store shopping driven by a need to support and feel part of their community. 

High quality retail experiences that help us connect to the people around us are the way forward. As Georgie explains: “It’s all about helping the customer be part of something. Once you get someone in your space, you can show them everything – the music you play, the staff you have – it gives you the chance to build a complete connection.” Giuseppe Demaio, founder of human-centered design studio, Local Peoples, also recognises the power of building connections:

“In-store is a lot richer. I think we’ve all come to realise through lots of Zoom meetings that you can have an ‘online transaction’, but it doesn’t feel as good as real life.”

As people continue to venture out after a period of sensory deprivation, local retail is a chance for them to support and bond with their community, but also participate in a brand experience that isn’t just transactional.

Another key theme this year has been local retailers’ ability to pivot. As the commercial landscape changes, the ‘new normal’ promises ample opportunity for brands to experiment in affordable, diverse ways. “People used to be scared of giving things a go because a store was such a big investment. But as rent gets cheaper, people will be able to just give something a crack”, says Georgie. 

This appetite for experimentation in local retail lends itself perfectly to the pop-up format. Louise Smith, co-founder of maximalist homeware store, Jolie Laide, describes how their unconventional approach also provides opportunity for IRL experiences that are nothing like those of traditional stores: “Not having a formal background in design or marketing has been advantageous as we continually push to seek out what we and our customers love. We have become very reactive to new ideas and encourage businesses to be more receptive to change. Pop-ups can be a way to do this. We’re currently involved in our first such experience (the pop-up at Harrolds with Jolie Laide), which also happens to be in luxury fashion and features some of our international and local artists.”

Left - Melbourne-based independent clothing label, Alpha 60, sets up shop in an ex-community church space. Right - Jolie Laide ('beautiful ugly’) is a maximalist homeware brand with a boutique, community feel.
Left - Melbourne-based independent clothing label, Alpha 60, sets up shop in an ex-community church space. Right - Jolie Laide ('beautiful ugly’) is a maximalist homeware brand with a boutique, community feel.

But above all, the driving force behind local support in 2020 is the focus small businesses place on their customers. Local retailers have been giving back, without expecting anything in return. For Alpha 60, it’s about keeping their community engaged through creativity and connection: “We focus on simple things we can give our customers,” says Georgie. “We made our delivery as quick as possible. We improved the quality of our packaging so we could surprise and delight. We did artist collabs and colouring competitions. We try to think about what people need at the moment.”  

For online sexuality space, Par Femme, the community is in the content. Co-founder Sam Costello explained how, in the long term, it’s more than a worthy investment for local retailers: “People tend to talk about content in terms of ‘how much money is this making?’ But it’s not about that. It’s about giving something to your audience; telling stories and building a relationship, not asking for something back.”  

As our lives shift and our cities change, high quality local retail can play an intrinsic role in defining our new urban identities. Stores will still be the glue that holds the culture of a city together, and we’ll no doubt need them more than ever. Giuseppe highlights the opportunity ahead:

“As we start to reclaim spaces post-Covid, it affects the whole identity of a city. New York shut down 87 office-based streets to make room for restaurants, markets and retail. People won’t be going to the city for work anymore – we need to do something drastic to keep them coming back.”