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27 November 2020 / Opinion

Brick and Mortal: Is the in-store shopping experience dead?

Victoria Yusuf / Junior Planner

We take a look at how retail brands are reviving the in-store shopping experience. 

COVID-19 has completely shifted the face of an already shaky retail landscape. With consumers restricted to their homes, rapidly depleting pre-pandemic footfall levels for brick-and-mortar stores have naturally taken a deeper dive as customers rely on online shopping, with almost 80% shopping online for in-store items.

During this period, we are seeing the growing trend of what’s dubbed the ‘in-sperience’ or ‘live-stream commerce', as brands bring their entertaining or informative experiences directly into people’s homes via laptops, headsets, or in Lululemon’s case, virtual mirrors (Stylus).

As shoppers rush to take advantage of Black Friday deals online and as we emerge from another four weeks of lockdown, experts predict that the impact of the pandemic is expected to last for years (Forbes). With the convenience of these new technologies, life-like replication of in-store experiences and lingering anxieties around public gatherings, we are forced to ask the question; has 2020 ushered in the death of in-store shopping?

The short answer is no. But with the likes of Debenhams, Arcadia, M&S, Monsoon, Victoria's Secret, Oasis and many others, either permanently closing stores or going into administration, the numbers beg to differ.

In-store retail clearly isn’t dead, but will it ever be the same?

We take a look at 5 ways retail brands are successfully adapting to leverage the brick-and-mortar experience.


1. COVID-friendly


We’ve seen categories such as grocery home in on creating safe, hygienic spaces through built-in distancing measures, from physical barriers such as screens to in-store signage and contactless checkouts. But brands like Lush, with their AI recognition app Lush Lens, who are empowering customers to scan products to access product information independently, and Amazon’s Fresh stores tablet equipped trolleys, QR codes and Alexa voice control stations, are likely to further win consumer confidence through autonomous touchless technologies (Stylus).  

Similarly, with health research revealing the lower virus transmission risk outdoors, experts predict that we may see a boom in open air malls. California’s largest mall, Westfield Valley Fair, recently tested the concept with its first outdoor pop-up market showcasing high-end brands like Levi’s, Coach, Pottery Barn and Ann Taylor (Retail Wire).  

As we approach the end of lockdown 2.0, several retailers, from Aldi to M&S, have successfully petitioned the extension of opening hours once doors re-open, in a hope to stagger crowds and queues in the anticipated Christmas rush and make social distancing easier and shopping in-store safer. Without any sort of online shopping offering at all, it’s no surprise that Primark has gone further to lobby for 24-hour trading hours, likely in an attempt to also recover lost sales during the lockdown periods. But could extended opening hours provide the right level of convenience and safety that customers want and need? Could late night shopping be here to stay? 



2. Experience of a Lifetime


Studies show that shopping in-store in the future is likely to become a more conscious, pre-planned process which customers will look forward to (Design Retail Online), meaning shopping may become less of a spontaneous 'need to' and more of a social event or experience.

From Vans exemplifying their motto of being 'off the wall' by providing customers with a 30,000 square feet building with a cinema, café, live music venue, art gallery and concrete ramp, to Huda Beauty wowing its shoppers with a sci-fi inspired pop-up event in Covent Garden in which visitors can sit on the throne Huda used in her launch material, brands are ramping up their ‘retail-tainment’.

Providing customers with a fun, unique and immersive in-store experience might be essential for a rewarding future in retail. Stats show that the desire for retail experience is on the rise with millennials saying 52% of their spending goes on experience-related purchases (The Store Front).


3. The Sustainability Draw


With the pandemic amplifying consumer appetite for sustainable brand behaviour, a door of opportunity has opened for retail brands to appeal to consumers by exploring eco-conscious consumption in their brand spaces. Flagship brands, especially within the fashion category, such as Nike and H&M, have launched stores and initiatives promoting this trailblazing agenda, going above and beyond to draw customers in-store.

Nike recently opened their flagship Innovation House in Paris. The store is the base for Nike’s Reuse-a-Shoe programme, where shoes from any brand can be donated and turned into material for making performance products, sports surfaces, and is even used in the store’s walls and floors. With more than 85,000 kilograms of sustainable materials featuring in the store design and operating solely on renewable energy, the store taps into Nike’s 2019 Move to Zero manifesto which aims to help the brand reach a ‘zero-carbon, zero-waste, fully circular future’ (Stylus).

Similarly, H&M’s Stockholm flagship store provides a service where customers can upcycle old knitwear into new pieces in just five hours (Stylus). These brands are closing the loop on their products life cycles and making sustainability highly visible to consumers, as well as accessible in a way that’s easy to comprehend - with a physical end product. These experiences that customers can only have in-store are likely to be permanent features in the future.


4. Leaning into Local


Whether it’s for convenience during lockdown, supporting local business or to avoid large crowds at superstores, local shopping is becoming the new standard. As e-commerce expands, retailers are already tapping into the localisation trend, which luckily also doubles as a way to cut down on real estate costs during this period of economic uncertainty.

For example, Sainsbury’s has launched the first of their Neighbourhood Hub stores, which are to designed to be a ‘one stop’, mini-supermarket, almost three times the size of standard locals. Offering homewares, beauty and international food ranges, it’s obvious that these stores are more than your average Sainsbury’s local, and will mean less trips across town to the bigger supermarkets (The Grocer).

We can also expect this new love for local, to drive retailers to invest in low-commitment real estate, such as hyper-local pop-ups that service niche needs. US brand Nordstrom is a great example, as customers can drop off returns, collect online orders, donate clothing to charity, have their shoes and handbag repaired or their strollers cleaned and do pretty much anything, but purchase actual merchandise at the local outpost (Stylus).


5. Let’s get Phygital


In retail marketing, digital channels have traditionally played more of a supporting role to the in-store experience. However, the pandemic has accelerated a 180-degree switch, where offline channels are now supporting digital activity. It’s no wonder that those retailers surviving and thriving during this period are those who have adapted to this new ‘phygital’ hierarchy and have built a seamless omnichannel strategy around it.

By using technology to create contactless spaces, many brands including Amazon Fresh, are already fully engaged in providing seamless omnichannel experiences. What’s interesting, however, is brands like Coty, who, attuned to the fact that consumers were likely to make shorter visits due to COVID-19 anxieties, delivered mirror-like screens and instant face scanning, displaying designated make-up looks onto the visitors as AR overlays to make browsing in store quicker. However, the final call to action was not an in-store purchase. Instead, they invite shoppers to instantly transfer the app onto their smartphones (via QR code screen-to-screen scanning), enabling them to explore any makeup looks found in-store further at home (Stylus).

Although not a digital example, John Lewis is similarly re-evaluating the functionality and purpose of its physical spaces. The brand recently made waves when it announced the repurposing some of its spaces by converting stores into private rental properties, putting their excess space to some good use. The company will work with developers to build new homes on up to 20 sites already owned by the partnership, providing the brand a stable income, but also forging a strong ‘social good’ brand narrative that can seamlessly integrate into its brand story. And at a time when corporate responsibility has never been more significant.


A Balancing Act

The pandemic has ushered in a new order. Online stores are now the main point of stock distribution, relegating brick and mortar stores to the role of safe delivery orientated brand avatars (Fashion United). If anything, COVID-19 has given retail brands an opportunity to review and better define the purpose and functionalities of their channels.

After seeing consumers flock to stores in anticipation (or fear) of Lockdown 2.0, it’s clear that demand for in-store shopping isn’t dead. Does that mean John Lewis will warrant 500 stores in future? With the rise of trends such as squad shopping, revelling in the ceremony around shopping is not something that will disappear. But retailers need to embrace the shift in meaning and purpose around in-store shopping by adjusting the balance, functionality and integration of their current digital vs physical offering. With grocery players like Co-op and discounters like Poundland set to open more stores in the next few years amid widespread high street closures, this balance will likely look different for each retail brand and category.

All in all, with Brexit and regional lockdowns in our wake, we can only expect 2021 to be year of more unexpected change. Even if COVID-19 ends in early 2021 and restrictions are lifted, much like changing sentiment around working from home, shopping habits will most likely never go back to normal, whatever that is. Nor will they stay exactly as they are now. Instead, we are likely to see a desire for hybridism (Retail Week).

Retailers that actualise flexible innovation through seamless digital integration of in-store channels, the designing of safe and COVID-friendly spaces and an unforgettable brick and mortar experiences, will stay ahead of the curve and reap the rewards of customer loyalty, whether in-store or online.