Revolutionising retail: what’s in store?

CEOs and retail directors discuss the ways in which the integration of digital and physical experiences are changing the retail landscape. What does the store of the future look like?

The festive season was once a bonanza for picture editors, with images of the lines snaking around the block as shoppers queued in the freezing cold to snag a bargain. 

Today, most shoppers are now comfortably ensconced on the sofa, clicking on emails instead of pounding the pavement. If now the most iconic of shopping events has migrated online, does this mean the high street is finally redundant? More than ever, we ask ourselves, what’s a store for? 

This is precisely the question four retail experts came together to discuss during a recent roundtable on revolutionising retail. And they revealed that, to misquote Mark Twain, reports of in-store retail’s death have been somewhat exaggerated.

Immersive experience 

Leanne Cahill, CEO of lingerie retailer Bravissimo, sought to highlight the immersive experience of in-person shopping: “Store environments are uniquely placed to provide choice and personalisation. For a lot of brands, stores are there to give a holistic experience of a brand where you can literally step in and immerse yourself in it.” 

Chris Rigg, retail director of outdoor sports retailer Ellis Brigham agreed, however he noted that while ecommerce seems to have grabbed ownership of the convenience label, it has a place in physical retail too. “There are two separate customer journeys, the experiential shopper who wants the branded experience and also the need for functional retail. We have to make sure we don’t forget about that. Much is said about theatre within retail, and that’s key from a branded point of view, but people also want to just purchase and go away again.” 

Of course, convenience means different things to different people. Making it a point of differentiation for a physical retailer means pulling numerous levers. These include offering click-and-collect facilities, using real-time inventory management systems and providing exemplary customer service. 

“The word omnichannel is really omnichannel-plus now because it’s about how you join up [on and offline] completely if you’re not a pure play,” says Beth Butterwick, CEO of fashion retailer Jigsaw. “Some of the devices and techniques such as tablets that find stock, find it locally, build outfit ideas and send them home or help store staff talk about influencers. There are many more things stores can do.”

Strategy first, then technology 

With so much technology available, however, it can be hard not to fall into the trap of gimmickry. By all means, use it to display cutting-edge tech, but it has to deliver on both effectiveness and the company’s ultimate strategic aims first. 

“It is a challenge for everyone,” warns Alan Holcroft, country manager at global retail software company Cegid. Cegid’s unified commerce and POS platform is trusted by more than 1,000 specialty and luxury retailers in more than 75 countries. “Savvy retailers have adopted a strategy of purposeful innovation,” says Holcroft. “Whether investing in tech to allow omnichannel flows or providing customer data to store teams, that’s what people need to work out how best to implement.” 

It’s also about delivering that full-circle experience. From Jigsaw building outfits in store with customers and then emailing them the suggestions to review at home, to Ellis Brigham using a 3D scanner to create a literal digital footprint that the customer can then use to size when online, technology in the physical store setting is tying up those final strands in the omnichannel experience. It can have far-reaching consequences, with technology improving customer satisfaction, which reduces the return rate, lowering cost for the retailer and bringing down carbon footprint. “That could be a real gamechanger,” Rigg says. 

As a partner to store associate expertise, technology is key to helping staff deliver that joined-up, targeted experience: “When a customer walks into our store, we want the team to be able to see the last thing that person purchased from us, even if that was online, and join it up with what they’re saying today. A lot of our business does not happen on the shop floor, it happens in the fitting area. It’s the team bringing choice to the customer,” Cahill says. 

It’s vital that all retail staff have access to the information they need to demonstrate that level of expertise. “One of the things that can lead to an inconsistent experience in store is lack of product knowledge,” says Holcroft. 

“Where we are seeing some clever customers that tackle these things is around product cataloguing – so delivering key information about the product that you’re selling in store. I’m not just talking about fit or colour or size or stock availability, but more around the provenance, the sustainability topic, and that blends itself neatly into the omnichannel flow.” 

The human touch 

It’s so important to remember that technology is playing a supporting role in-store. That, to date, no bits and bytes have been able to supplant the human touch. “Humans can understand a customer’s need state, which machines can’t do. This is why a combination of fantastic tech and the beauty of humans is the best experience you can give a customer,” Butterwick adds. 

This extends to a much-changed post-pandemic retail environment. Both Ellis Brigham and Jigsaw moved some retail spaces to dark stores during the pandemic. Bravissimo used staff in-store while all shopping was done online to provide virtual fittings in a familiar environment, albeit one seen through a screen. 

The challenge now is that customers want both in-person and virtual try-ons, while the stores now have customers thronging about. When forced to close, Bravissimo still used the store teams and environment to provide virtual fitting. “We’re trying to balance still being able to offer that while the store is open,” Cahill says. “The challenge is around learning and development and bringing people into the business that can support that journey,” Rigg insists. Holcroft agrees: “You can’t just dump technology on store teams and say get on with the job. We have to make it simpler and more intuitive.” 

The role of the store associate has completely changed, they have to be brand ambassadors, sales champions and be experts in supply chain and provenance [yet] they’re still measured on traditional KPIs. Tech is a useful tool to complement the change in role

Holcroft also says that so much more is now expected of staff: “The role of the store associate has completely changed, they have to be brand ambassadors, sales champions and be experts in supply chain and provenance [yet] they’re still measured on traditional KPIs. Tech is a useful tool to complement the change in role.” 

Understand success 

Measurement is no less vital in a post-pandemic environment, but retailers need to recognise that the way they metric success must fundamentally change to meet the new conditions. 

“We have to look at different ways of measuring people in store. We’ve changed our whole incentivisation away from in-store sales and made it about the overall omnichannel. It’s hard to quantify. Looking at the halo effect of a store is the most important thing we can do,” Rigg says. 

While it’s heartening to hear that the role of the store may be evolving, it is still very much beloved by business owners and customers alike. But even if companies are more relaxed about where the sale ultimately takes place, that physical presence is a cost, and it must wash its face, financially speaking. “At the end of the day stores still have to contribute,” Butterwick says. “Store contribution and the power of brand comes through people and managers and how innovative they are.”

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