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After the demise of HMV, many were quick to plan the future of retail.
Econsultancy got in on the act, too, suggesting ways in which the internet could save the high street.
The consensus seemed to be that experiences on the high street would be more important than mere commerce. Why go into a store if the journey of finding a product and taking it to the till to pay is as boring as it is online?
Over the past three years or so, I think we have seen the resurgence of the concept store. In fact, I think retail has woken up to the value of service, great product display, interactivity, digital technology and a great shopping experience.
Here, I've taken a look at some of the concept stores out there, and what they mean for customer experience.
The Argos digital concept store at Old Street unsurprisingly makes prominent use of technology. The Argos website gives a canny description of the aims of the store.
Faster, easier and more seamless by combining the best of shopping online and shopping on your high street - an experience like no other.
The Old Street store has been chosen as one of the first in the country to undergo this transformation, packed with the latest technology.
Giving you the choice, convenience and speed of shopping online, with a friendly face in your local store.
The video below, complete with bombastic music, gives some great shots of the store. There'll be 25 of these stores in place by March 2015.
What does this Argos store do differently?
- Better fulfillment through use of digital has led to a click-and-collect service that is quicker than previously. The FastTrack collection in store is available after prepaying online and products will be waiting on shelves in-store for collection that takes around a minute.
- Customers come into store at some point in around 90% of Argos transactions, even though 40% are paid for online. The store therefore has to be modern, appealing and provide a human touch in the digital transaction.
- iPads replace the laminated catalogue. Customers can watch product videos and read reviews, check stock and add items to the digital shopping trolley. WiFi is provided so customers are encouraged to stay.
- Customer service is prominently delivered in a dedicated area that also features catalogues.
- Digital screens can be dynamically changed to showcase promotions.
Other digitally enhanced stores out there include:
Apple is obviously the archetype, with its museum-esque layout, free WiFi and charge, e-receipts and roaming checkouts, payment by Apple ID and plenty of visible customer service.
Outside of technology and catalogue stores, it's of course silly for an apparel retailer, for example, or a grocer, to rid the shopfloor of inventory and create the same experience.
Waitrose, however, has opened a concept store in Swindon, showcasing new digital technology. This includes iBeacons to push offers at app users in store, digital signage and screens, ecommerce pickup and shipping from store, alongside more experiential elements such as a juice bar.
M&S has trialled similar technology in a London Oxford Street store and is using a virtual rail in one of its Dutch stores.
Anthropolgie and Burberry are other two retailers that strike me as trying to achieve a balance though in slightly different ways.
Anthropologie has learnt that its stunningly merchandised stores are social media gold and do lots for the brand in tandem with its website, which offers free shipping to new registrants, likely those who have been won over by the high street store.
And Burberry has weaved digital and so-called clientelling into customer service and product display.
I separate off these examples because although the stores provide a fantastic experience, their transformation isn't rooted in digital.
These brands might be doing great digital things elsewhere, but in their stores it's not necessarily about digital but about showcasing the product more generally.
To start, the Nespresso Boutiques (see the rather aspirational copy on the Nespresso website) are vital to its brand.
Although the experience for Nespresso owners can go on to include mobile app ordering of capsules, next day delivery, capsule recycling, a magazine on tablet and even breakdown assistance, these boutiques are often where customer journeys begin.
Nespresso sells wholesale, from its website and from its boutiques. With a big market of consumer electronics and kitchenalia available, the boutiques help to lend weight to the cries of excellence online.
Through trying the coffee in store and getting a feel for the product in situ, customers are brought on board with appeal to all of their senses, before the brand cashes in with high-margin capsule sale later down the line.
The concept brand store is becoming prevalent, certainly in major cities, where aspirational consumer goods brands realise that expensive high street real estate and fun experiences within are key to putting their money where their mouths are.
Other brand stores include:
- KitKat within the Seibu department store in Japan, M&M World and many others in the consumer goods world.
- Sports brands such as Nike, with Niketown on Oxford Circus, and Adidas, with its flagship stores in China and Bluewater shopping centre. Though wholesale makes up the majority of business for these brands, positioning their brand experience on the high street is still a smart move.
- Looking to the East, Minter Dial here reports on Under Armour's attempts at storytailing, asking each store visitor for an email address before granting entry to a room with a giant screen. Customers can watch promotional films before eventually being let loose with the merchandise.
Pop-ups are often a trial, especially for pureplays, to see if this style of engagement, often through digital in-store, could work longer term.
Story is an interesting case in New York of a store that cycles its brands (and stories) every month, showcasing new products from companies you might not expect to see on the high street, such as General Electric.
This is where pop-ups blend into experiential marketing and new product or campaign launches. They're a shorter term and higher impact version of the brand store.
Made.com is an interesting case study that doesn't quite fit into any of the three categories above. The brand is pretty much a pureplay, but has two showrooms.
These stores require the customer to request an appointment to view, punch a code in to enter (allowing the retailer to track attendance) and use NFC on a tablet computer to 'scan' items on show and purchase them online.
Made talks of attracting customers that are still anxious about ordering online without physically interacting with products. These showrooms bring Made further into the consciousness of a potentially valuable part of its audience.
'Product gurus' are on hand to sell, in much the same way as an upmarket furniture store.
The main point here about concept stores is the creation of a pleasing environment combined with excellent service. In this respect stores are beginning to offer the experiences many predicted would be needed back in 2010, as high street retailers were failing post-recession.
The combination of digital (product information, storytelling, promotion and showcase), brand (environment and experience), increased convenience (click and collect, single view of stock) and customer service (efficient and face-to-face) is incredibly powerful. If retailers have the wherewithal to do this, the time is now.
Of course, what these stores do is throw down the gauntlet to digital and create an arms race. Although convenience may be everything for many customers, will the allure of the concept store draw customers back to the shops?
The holy grail is to understand exactly who your customers are, track them across channels, and find the more channels they shop in, the more valuable they are.