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Retail Rewired: Physical and Digital Collide

Image by Gensler and Resource.

Over the past few years, technology has had a major impact on me, on my clients, and on the work we do together. It’s very clear that retail will never be the same. As a consumer, the way we shop has changed forever. As an architect and designer of retail experiences, I’m fascinated by that fact and excited about the evolution, even revolution it’s brought to our industry. Later this week I will join Dan Shust, vice president of innovation at the digital agency, Resource, in a presentation of the intersection between technology and brick-and-mortar retail at SXSW in Austin, Texas. As Dan and I were planning our presentation, we sat down to ask ourselves a few questions about what all of this means. Our conversation is just more proof that our worlds really have collided.

What makes us so passionate about this topic?

Barry Bourbon: Throughout my entire career I’ve always been excited by the way retail is an evolving experience. In recent decades we witnessed a major shift toward specialty stores that cater to specific lifestyles, allowing customers to find unique niches that they fit into, and delivering more personal experiences. But now we’re adding the layer of technology into those specializations, and it’s empowering even more personal, more direct connections – we’re seeing people connect on- and off-line around shared values and aspirations. Technology expands our options, but also allows us to whittle things down to what really matters to us, to customize more than ever before.

Dan Shust: I’m always fascinated by experiences with new media. First CD-ROMS. The internet. Mobile apps. Tablets. Recently we’ve been jumping into new media faster than ever before, and this collision between physical and virtual is really captivating. I love that I can actually feel physically present through technology, and I’m excited to see where this will go.

Who’s setting the standard for digital in-store experiences?

DS: In truth, there aren’t many brands that have figured out how to be successful with multi-channel experiences, so the few who have really stand out. Starbucks is one of them. With minimal changes to their physical stores, but by focusing efforts on developing mobile apps, virtual payment platforms, and online ordering systems, they’ve created a streamlined, efficient in-store experience that creates very loyal customers. Audi is another example I’ve seen: they’ve used technology brilliantly to create dynamic digital displays in their showrooms that allow customers to browse vehicles and explore endless options—really personalizing the experience for each individual through technology.

BB: Sephora is another brand that’s getting it right. Their in-store personalization tools allow customers to “try” products before making purchases. There’s a greater emphasis on customer service rather than transactions – in fact the cash wraps have been turned into service desks, and the sales associates can now help customers check out via mobile devices anywhere in the store. The brand’s in-store messaging, especially to their club of Beauty Insiders is totally consistent with the messaging that these customers receive online, in emails, via social media – it’s a seamless experience, so customers know what to expect.

What impact will technology have on in-store staff? Will they need to be trained differently?

DS: Just like Barry’s Sephora example, technology frees up the sales associates to be more focused on customer service. With the depth of information and product reviews available online, it’s possible that customers will walk into a store knowing more about some products than the sales staff – so brands need to make sure their employees have access to the same information and then some, in order to provide the expert advice that customers seek. Brands also need to be sure that store associates are projecting the same messages that customers see and hear through other channels – consistency is key.

BB: I also think it’s critical to acknowledge diversity in the customer base. Some will be accepting of new technologies and others won’t want it, or need it – a store associate needs to be able to read that and be adaptable. Technology has to be a functional tool that’s about providing a better customer experience, not just about bells and whistles.

DS: Exactly. Technology often needs to fade to the background in order to be effective.

Let’s take off the professional hat for a minute and put on our customer hats – what in-store experiences with technology have blown us away?

BB: I was shopping for furniture for my home, talking through ideas with a sales associate and had pictures of my living room on my smartphone, and she had an iPad. By using my personal photos and her digital tools, she was able to show me exactly what the new furniture would look like in my home. It made it so much easier to visualize the end product and make a purchase decision, which meant a lot since I was investing in a product that I hope will last for a long time.

DS: For me it was walking into an Apple store, buying headphones, and walking out without talking to or interacting with a single store associate. I honestly felt like a crook the first time I did it – it felt strange to walk out of the store with a product in my hands that a salesperson had not checked out. But the brand’s EasyPay mobile store and app made it so easy: I knew what I wanted, found it on my own, paid through my own personal phone that is linked to my credit card, and got a receipt on the spot via email. After having this experience personally, I knew retail was changed forever.

Describe the store of the future in three words.

DS: Personal, engaging, and evolving.

BB: Connected, experiential, and easy.

Join our conversation at SXSW in Austin, Texas, on Sunday, March 10, 2013; or on Twitter with the hashtags #futureshop and #sxsw.

Barry Bourbon AIA, LEED® AP, is a leader of Gensler’s global retail practice and a principal in the San Francisco office. With a constant eye on the latest tools and technologies that connect consumers and retailers, Barry inspires colleagues to stay focused on the rapidly evolving issues facing clients, and to design for the holistic experience of a brand. Never one to shy from a challenge, Barry is an expert problem solver who excels at leading multi-location, multi-disciplinary teams with the tightest schedules and budgets. Contact him at barry_bourbon@gensler.com.

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