In the early 70s, two groups of students, separated by distance, quietly processed the world’s seminal act of e-commerce. With one posse at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and the other at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an undisclosed amount of marijuana was sold using an ancestor of our modern computers and internet. Online retail has since boomed, and consumer interaction with the digital landscape has never been the same. But with technological innovation, like that initiated by mid-70s US students, comes constant change, and retail is changing once more—towards real-life consumer experiences.
Despite the strength of the digital sales environment, a recent report by GP Bullhound suggests “traditional bricks and mortar retail” will continue to dominate over e-commerce, and as technology thrives, the customer demand for new forms of retail interaction will rise. This means that online retailers are incentivised to open physical stores and evolve the way they display POS and other retail eye-catchers. Too many retailers are unprepared for this upcoming trend.
But this isn’t the first instance that retailers have trekked backwards from the digital to the physical realm to save themselves: key tech players like Microsoft and Apple were the first to open physical stores for their customers, and more recently, Amazon. Even smaller, local companies are reverting to real-life retail interaction, such as Leeds-based Sound Leisure, who opened a pop-up to meet physical demand. Though on the surface this appears counterintuitive considering the popularity of e-commerce and its ease-of-access online purchasing, many retailers understand that contemporary customers still prefer brands with physical stores as opposed to online-only brands—sixty-four per-cent, in fact—and that memorable POS structures, not found online, are key to brand loyalty.
This number brings immense change for Western high street environments as brands make the transition back towards simpler retail environments. For example, US shopping centre operator Macerich recently unveiled BrandBox, a concept that intends to help online stores build their physical presence in malls. But it’s not just the demand for physical presence that’s leaving retailers going back and forth, suggests GP Bullhound, it’s because of a “new age of retail” emerging alongside Silicon Valley trends. Statistics reveal consumers are starved of physical experiences—for example, forty per-cent of customers would pay more for a product if they could experience it in augmented reality (AR). As consumerism teeters towards experiential purchasing and consumers demand advanced POS interaction, brands may now have to consider building sales material that traverses the customer through a unique experience to buy their loyalty, especially as similar industries lead the way with mammoth footprints.
Over Christmas 2018, Netflix released Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, the streaming platform’s first major, mainstream foray into experiential storytelling. In the form of a choose-your-own-adventure tale, Netflix users were given the ability to influence main characters’ decisions and explore alternate plot pathways of their own accord. Though the movie is eerie, Charlie Booker’s latest endeavour highlights a pertinent truth for other big brands: a mix of consumer experience, storytelling and experimental tech is key to popularity, relevance and brand loyalty. Oh, and letting the consumer take the product out for a spin like a shiny new car.
Strange and innovative POS is on the rise and it’s not uncommon to put customers at the wheel. In wintry Boston, December, clothing company Canada Goose opened their “Cold Room”. It does what it says on the tin: customers were able to test the warmth and protective qualities of Canada Goose jackets by entering a small, -27°F (approx. -32°C) room and enduring the low temperatures. Though not specifically a beginning-middle-and-end storytelling experience, Canada Goose gave their customers power and authority through the ability to confront the store’s claims about its clothing and by providing innovative ways to try-before-you-buy.
Fifty-eight per-cent of customers use smartphones to research products while in-store, which may suggest demand for an interactivity in physical retail that adds depth and proof of quality. Consumers are increasingly seeking retail that blends with tech not because they’re after a bit of fun, but because they look to make informed purchases with trusted brands that prioritise their experience from the second they step through the door until the moment they leave. No longer does consumerism demand speedy transactions when it comes to the high street.
This demand comes at a perfect time for those high street stores struggling to compete with e-commerce. As of 2018, 1,267 retail store closures have occurred in Britain, while one in every five pounds spent in the UK is online. Elizabeth Segran of Fast Company, suggests that flashy and wacky experiences can be beneficial to solidifying the longevity of the high street
‘Wooing people into [physical] stores is valuable,’ she said. ‘It can deepen a customer’s loyalty and increase their lifetime spending.’
Other high street retail endeavours reveal POS peacocking may bridge the step between traditional retail and experiential retail for those looking to dip their toe in the water. Light boxes, sustainable alternatives to MDF boards and environmentally friendly latex inks are equipped by us at Imageco to create intricate and engaging POS structures for retailers.
Nathan Swinson-Bullough, Director and Co-owner of Imageco, anticipated the demand for customer experience and pre-emptively transformed the way they created POS for their clients: ‘We went from creating simple, printed signage to incredible Xanita Board beehive structures with light boxes, screens and other interactive elements including an HD, 3D holographic projector.
‘It’s all about weaving company values into your POS experience so customers can really get to know your brand.’
The proof of its success in the pudding. Similarly to Canada Goose’s Cold Room, House of Vans in London gave consumers the power to design their own retail environment: a place “where imagination lets loose”, the site houses skate courses, a music venue, an art gallery and more. By setting up what is essentially a film set for skaters’ wildest dreams and gathering creatives or dedicated Vans wearers to act out the fun, Vans’ storytelling encourages thriving physical retail experiences while offering online virtual tours to solidify brand loyalty on both sides of commerce, digital or not. Other retailers offering experiential retail to their benefit include Ikea, Toms and Urban Outfitters’ Space Ninety 8, and these physical stores show no sign of faulting.
Since daydreaming 70s-students initiated infantile e-commerce in the US, retail has come a long way. From thriving worldwide digital sales environments to a new form of purchasing that blends tech with physical retail, it’s undeniable that consumer experience is a priority wherever the focus lies. The retail industry has found its way through decades of tumultuous tech-industry changes and is battling through hazardous high street economics, but since technological and retail innovation seemingly has nowhere else to go but up, the future of the high street lies in experiential storytelling—and the author? Techy POS.
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