Take a walk around the touch-free store

Many retail brands have spent years and millions transforming their stores into immersive experiences. But how will they fare now coronavirus has taken away one of the senses to which these experiences appeal?
Burberry’s first social retail store in Shenzhen, China, where customers have access to exclusive content and personalised experiences through a dedicated app

Former prime minister David Cameron famously said: “I was the future once.” Many retailers that deployed immersive in-store experiences, touchscreen displays, selfie-walls and virtual-reality headsets perhaps thought the same thing when the pandemic hit.

Germaphobic, socially-distanced, coronavirus-conscious consumers have put the dampeners on touchy-feely retail. When it comes to the store of the future, right now, touch-free innovative shopping experiences are where it’s at.

Luckily, some businesses are already half-way there in reimagining bricks and mortar, as lockdowns in many countries have forced brands to deploy a digital-first approach at speed. As stores reopen there’s an opportunity to create new experiences using data, shopper profiles and artificial intelligence to elevate high street spaces to the next level. 

What might a touch-free store look like?

“The inter-relationship between physical and digital retail will continue to grow, and COVID-19 is essentially accelerating the trend that was already out there,” explains Nick Cooper, group executive director, insights and analytics, at Landor & FITCH. 

If you believe the future is already here, but just not evenly distributed, take a walk around Burberry’s first social retail store, which recently opened in Shenzhen, southern China. This will give you a flavour of the store of the future. With a specific programme on WeChat, the country’s most popular messaging app, customers can click on exclusive content and personalised experiences in-store, then share details with friends. No touching is needed.

Every item in-store has a tag with a QR code, scan them for more storytelling. Each customer is also given a playful animal character via Snapchat that evolves as they walk around the store. The gamified experience takes retail to another level. The more that customers engage with this form of augmented retail, the more rewards they get through Burberry’s social currency.

Burberry’s dedicated app

“Future bricks-and-mortar destinations will certainly become more hybridised. In the future we expect to see brands shift stores towards studio concepts where retail space becomes media,” says Antony Parham, executive creative director at Imagination.

Certainly, the touch-free store of the future will be heavy on so-called c-commerce – curation, content, convenience and connections. Nike and adidas lead the way with their concept stores, using people’s personal smartphones as the conduit, connecting customer profiles and in-store activity.

Geo-location, 5G speeds, QR codes and data are the new fuel in this space. What was once gimmicky will be more purposeful and only be utilised if it drives engagement.

“Right now, richly immersive experiences are being trialled and iterated more quickly and the exciting part is that innovation is here to stay. It is also evolving into every part of the customer journey,” says Michelle Du-Prât, executive strategy director at Household.

Is post pandemic retail post-touch?

The big question for physical retail in a COVID-conscious world, where the touchy-feely bit is not exactly top of mind, is what is it aiming to achieve? Using digital 3D avatars to try products in-store before purchasing, as used by Shiseido, or virtual make up via augmented reality as deployed MAC Cosmetics, or magic mirrors, are good to have, but they’re unlikely to be game-changers.

The big question for physical retail in a COVID-conscious world, where the touchy-feely bit is not exactly top of mind, is what is it aiming to achieve? Using digital 3D avatars to try products in-store before purchasing, as used by Shiseido, or virtual make up via augmented reality as deployed MAC Cosmetics, or magic mirrors, are good to have, but they’re unlikely to be game-changers.

Richly immersive experiences are being trialled and iterated more quickly - innovation is here to stay

“Retailers must not rely too heavily on the digital connection. The need for a well-considered, engaging and forward-thinking shopping environment that can adapt and change will play a major role in the survival of bricks and mortar,” says Ewald Damen, creative director at Virgile + Partners.

Especially when so much more to do with retail can be done in the comfort of your living room. For instance, the new iPhones and iPad Pros all come with LiDAR, or light detection and ranging sensors. These can assist in scanning customer sizes much more accurately at home. There’s no need for a physical store.

“Virtual reality, on the other hand, could be used to give consumers the in-store experience from home. Devices like the Oculus Quest 2 make it far more accessible for customers to achieve a VR experience. In the near future, brands may need to start thinking about hiring games designers to create these interactive virtual experiences,” says Naji El-Arifi, head of innovation at Wunderman Thompson Commerce.

Finding creative ways to help people shop

In fact, the physical store accessed via a video-conferencing link, such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams, could soon be coming to a store near you. It’s an easy enhancement, it’s touch-free and could assist time-poor shoppers with a busy schedule, those who are anxious on the high street or with health concerns. 

“If consumers are able to speak remotely to a shop assistant, who can then take them around the store or show them the grain of the leather on a new handbag in a near real-life simulation, it’s likely to improve brand loyalty and increase sales,” according to Richard Clarke, executive director of global retail at Fujitsu.

For some store environments, the new booking economy is already here due to the pandemic. In a post-COVID world, this could be elevated to achieve a more exclusive experience, particularly for luxury bricks-and-mortar retail. The nightclub doorman and his list for VIP guests has worked well for decades. 

“Retailers should consider elevating the in-store shopping experience by introducing reservations for more intimate and safe physical shopping experiences,” says Rebecca Robins, chief learning and culture officer at Interbrand.

“Certainly, experiential spaces are central to creating a reason for stores to exist. They are a stage for products and services,” she says. “Lingerie brand ThirdLove, which is all about inclusivity and comfort, reimagined its first pop-up shop in London’s Soho through the lens of how it would make a consumer feel, creating an experience that’s less retail store and more like a living room.”

A bricks-and-mortar shift from products to services

There’s no doubt that future stores will have to provide more non-physical services above and beyond product sales. A glimpse of the future can be seen with Jeff Bezos’s latest grocery format. At Amazon Go in Seattle sensors and tracking mean customers can walk in the store, purchase and walk out again without queuing using cashierless technology.

While Amazon Fresh in Los Angeles has Alexa kiosks placed around the grocery store. Customers can then ask product-related questions, recommendations and meal inspirations, as if they were talking to a friend.

“In a time where human contact is still valued and not always viable, Amazon is utilising its voice technology to act as a personal shopper. Going forwards, voice technology will be embraced in future retail experiences for this reason,” says Household’s Du-Prât.

“A completely contactless experience for consumers will be part of the store of the future. Just look at biometrics in China. Alipay now allows customers to use Smile to Pay, utilising facial recognition, which means customers pay without touching anything.”

The touchless store of the future will definitely rely on more personalisation using similar tactics deployed online. Nike is at the forefront of this approach. Its Berlin flagship boasts a giant media wall, with images, livestreaming, social media and product information. Using 3D cameras, in-store technology recognises shoppers as they arrive and accesses customer data via the Nike app.

“Personalised content about recently viewed items and stock availability is then posted to the media wall, with push notifications and tailored offers available on the app and in-store,” explains Elliott Jacobs, director for agency and commerce consulting at LiveArea. And you don’t need to touch anything.