The future of bricks-and-mortar retail: and how good design can save it


Cecilia Sylvan Martin

Director, London

Tags retail

The world of retail is changing. Our Retail Team take a look at the future of the bricks-and-mortar store.

Shoppers are increasingly turning to the convenience and economy of online. Bricks-and-mortar stores therefore need to rethink the way they sell their wares, by offering shoppers ‘different’ and new retail experiences.

Seamless omni-channel experiences go beyond digital integration

It is not enough for bricks-and-mortar stores to offer online/offline integration and cater for the digital consumer. As recent victims of the recession have evidenced, in redesigning their stores in a bid to become seamless and ‘digital’, they’ve failed to provide in store what shoppers can’t already get online.

In our view omni-channel experiences are the future, with customers using both the online and offline channels available to them to suit their needs, but it will take more than ‘just’ providing the latest technology and strategically placing tablets and ubiquitous flat screen TVs around the store.

Kids, you can do this at home
Kids, you can do this at home

Using physical stores to leverage emotional engagement

Trading has forever been a social activity: a forging of bonds between people and communities. This very real, social experience is in contrast to the more transactional, solitary experience that online shopping tends to involve.

More than ever, we are seeing successful contemporary bricks-and-mortar stores clearly convey their brand personality and soul: functioning as a tangible ‘human’ touchpoint and creating a very real face of the brand. In doing so, ensuring that when a shopper makes the effort to physically ‘visit’ their brand, they are met by genuine hospitality.

We believe that strong design strategy plays a crucial role in future-proofing bricks-and-mortar stores, with three key components central to providing a ‘human face of the brand’:

  1. Telling compelling brand stories
  2. ‘Values’ not just value
  3. Catering for the social shopper

1. Telling compelling brand stories

One of the most important roles design can play in the retail environment is to visually convey brand essence.

Traditionally the role of store has been to showcase products and convert sales. However, the problem with too strong a focus on ‘showrooming’ products today is that the product is the same wherever you buy it, so shoppers can easily turn to comparison websites to find the best deal.

By contrast, brands successful in getting consumers to engage with their brand values are better placed to generate the engagement, loyalty and competitive edge it takes to both become a destination and convert sales.

A good example of a store that invites shoppers to interact as much with the brand as the products is the Swedish fashion brand Monki. Its interior design concept is based around immersing consumers in the otherworldly ‘Monki Universe’. Monki’s stores bring to life alternative Monki landscapes, providing their shoppers with spaces that inspire and trigger imagination, making shoppers more receptive to their quirky and unusual clothing.

Creative and imaginative stores for creative and imaginative clothes
Creative and imaginative stores for creative and imaginative clothes

2. Values not ‘just’ value

Price is not everything, and it’s evident that in the age of social media consumers want to feel they are part of something bigger.

Increasingly, successful retail design concepts sell lifestyles. Layout and visual identity throughout the store cues an attitude to life, giving its shoppers the feeling of belonging to a group or a community.

A well-known example of this is Anthropologie, whose homely styling (with clothes, accessories and homewares merchandised together) gives the feeling that a well-travelled person with an eclectic and expressive personal style has put the space together, not a corporate visual merchandiser.

The design rules here seem to be no rules

3.  Catering for the social shopper

Consumers’ opinions and reviews increasingly dictate trends and influence their choice of retailer. As such, brands using the physical store to cater for the ‘social shopper’ are tapping into an important trend. But it’s not enough to ‘just’ have a smoothie / coffee bar and free wifi; spaces need to be designed to facilitate the meeting of like-minded people, where shoppers feel part of the brand’s discourse (in contrast to just being ‘marketed at’).

The Late Night Chameleon Café boutique is an example of where the store is used as a touchpoint to engage its customers in a dialogue (most of their sales are done online), as well as enabling its customers to drive the community / collective they feel a part of. The store ‘curates’ a selection of men’s and women’s wear, music and books across four individual product rooms; a library, a record store, gallery and a club space for private events with custom built, vintage sound system. To feel even more like a secret society for those ‘in the know’, the store operates on an appointment-only basis.

A place to hang out as much as a place to shop
A place to hang out as much as a place to shop

Another good example here is Rough Trade record store. In contrast to the faceless mega record stores of the recent past, the continuing success of the more personal Rough Trade stores, with their buzzing atmosphere, is based on becoming a cultural destination full of events and creativity (things you can’t get on Amazon!). Here spending time is a pleasure, not a chore.

It’s all about the music

Physical stores still have an essential role to play

The fact that successful online businesses are beginning to understand the importance of having a physical presence on the high street bears testament to the fact that bricks-and-mortar play a role online can’t fulfill. An example here is US retailer Bonobos. Once a online-only company, Bonobos now have bricks-and-mortar stores known as ‘Guideshops’ where customers have a personal guide who takes them through the products available to them, helps them find sizes and pick colours, and then places an order for them – a very personal service, and no shopping bags required.

A very personal in-store experience
A very personal in-store experience

If retailers are to succeed on the high street, they need to provide something above and beyond what customers can get online. Dialing up personality and ‘humanity’, and providing relevant and inspirational experiences, will play an important role in achieving this. As will great design – ensuring that the look and feel of stores leave consumers wanting to come back for more.