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Stores Must Learn to Think Like Facebook

Cadillac House. Image © Gensler

Editor’s note: This Op-Ed originally appeared in Business of Fashion.

Constant connectivity means people’s attentions are constantly divided, and the erosion of work-life balance has made free time more valuable than ever. As a result, people have divided their shopping habits into the “needs” and the “wants.” We source our needs online, saving our valuable free time for the wants. More often than not, the wants are experiences and not things.

Today, fashion retailers aren’t just competing with other retailers—they’re competing with an afternoon at a museum, tickets to Hamilton, a concert or a great meal. In order to be successful, the store of the future will offer a mash-up of all these things: a sense of theatre, memorable content and hospitality, in a physical environment where you can do one or all of these things simultaneously. What’s more, the store of the future probably won’t be a store, at least not the way we use the term today.

Cadillac House. Image © Gensler

Future generations of shoppers will likely not think of digital experiences as being different from “real” ones, rendering the strategies and vocabulary designers use to understand experience, space, and behaviour obsolete. Soon, words like “omnichannel” and “experiential” will be as quaint as saying something is “fresh” or “on fleek.” These words will be inevitably replaced by the simpler, and more inclusive, “shopping.” We’ll no longer speak of online shopping or mobile shopping or showrooming or in-store pick-up, as these things will just be considered one seamless shopping experience, driven by data, with information collected from customers at every touchpoint to determine what products are introduced, when and to whom.

We can see this evolution happening already. Online shopping is supporting—not killing— bricks and mortar. Our consumer research into the shopping habits of women aged 25 to 35 showed that they use digital to “pre-game”—meaning they come into the store prepared with digital swipe, but still wanted the tactile experience of fashion: touching the garments, trying them on and being social with others. They overwhelmingly viewed shopping as “me time,” an indulgence on par with getting a manicure or having dinner with friends. In the future, the best stores will be the ones where people choose to spend their valuable free time because they get a sense of satisfaction, hospitality and community.

Cadillac House. Image © Gensler

How can retailers prepare and stay relevant? By learning from their customers and baking in flexibility and opportunities to support community. When customers expect to be entertained and treated to an exceptional experience, the countertop used to display cashmere sweaters one minute must be ready to serve cocktails as a bar cart a minute later. A platform used to mount mannequins can become the stage for an up-and-coming band. Inviting customers to drop in and try on a new collection before it’s released can result in real-time feedback for designers. This element of surprise and delight, unexpected theatre and the opportunity to incorporate customer feedback, makes the difference between a store and a memorable destination; a brand that people like and a brand that they’re emotionally invested in.

The store of the future will act like Facebook—as a social gathering space with content that’s tailored to the likes and interests of its community. The store of the future will smell like coffee, fresh pressed juice or even beer, as hospitality becomes increasingly important to the experience of shopping. The store of the future will be located on the corner of Anywhere and Everywhere, as omnichannel retailing is not a convenience but, rather, demanded by consumers as the norm. The store of the future will be an extension of a brand’s online presence and vice versa—one barrier-free brand expression where customers can go to socialise, be entertained and learn things. And maybe they’ll even walk out with a shopping bag.

John Bricker is creative director at Gensler, a 35+ year veteran of the firm, who founded Gensler’s brand studio with an emphasis in retail and lifestyle brands. He has seen the firm grow from 300 to nearly 5,000 employees and become the largest architecture and design consulting firm in the world. During that time he has honed and pioneered a holistic design approach that links sensory environments, communication design, digital interaction and brand strategy together with interiors and architecture. Contact him at john_bricker@gensler.com.