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In recent years, brands have switched their focus from being all about distribution and growth via store rollouts to a predominantly online strategy that prioritises personalisation, brand-loyalty lifecycles, and social sharing. Now, brands need to bring it back from the extremes to the middle.
In today’s competitive online world, brands’ physical environments should not only remain in place, where possible, but also need to be recognised and identified as conceptual extensions of the brand. It is time for retailers to reconsider their store development strategy. Instead of becoming laser-focused on digital expansion, retailers need to start thinking differently about how they can re-engage the physical retail environment.
The best place to start? The re-design and development of concept stores.
Why concept stores?
The term concept store has been thrown around with widely varying definitions. To simplify, a concept store should be a built environment that prioritises brand experience over product display. It’s about the idea behind the products, and the ideal of the brand, rather than selling the products themselves.
Concept stores provide retailers with an opportunity to combine multiple themes and activations in a real-world experience for new and existing customers. Their purpose is to create a lasting, memorable, and shareable experience for each individual.
The future of store development strategy should be focused on the space going beyond simply selling a product. When it comes to creating such a space, brands will need a robust design strategy that focuses on three key areas: sustainability, technology, and branding.
Sustainable initiatives are becoming a hygiene factor for all brands, no matter what sector they’re in. With younger generations demanding more accountability, there is an exciting opportunity for those who are hearing the call to reference this throughout their concept store in interesting ways.
The building element of store development is an area that is often overlooked as an opportunity for brands to demonstrate their sustainable initiatives and tell their brand story through the physical components that make up their environment. Whether it’s developing fixtures and fittings locally rather than offshore, or integrating recycled or repurposed elements into store design, brands have a plethora of ways to reduce their impact when building.
A great example of this is the recent international store from the iconic RM Williams. Partnering with Australian company Storepro and architect E2, RM Williams used recycled and reclaimed timbers in everything from custom joinery to shopfronts. This celebration of raw materials ensures that the RM Williams’ brand is tactile and tangible, and that the craftsmanship that goes into its products carries through into the environments where its customers shop.
Retailers can also highlight their social responsibility and commitment to sustainability by demonstrating their product lifecycles. Whether it’s the repair stations at Patagonia stores or The Body Shop’s activist stores, concept stores allow brands to engage their customers in the journey they’re taking towards being more sustainability conscious.
Many physical retail environments are still only scratching the surface of what is possible when it comes to technical integrations. It could be argued that the most widely adopted technical integration to date is click-and-collect (with interactive screens and autonomous checkouts coming a close second and third).
The excitement comes when retailers leverage technology within the built environment to not only create a seamless customer experience from online to in-store, but also enhance every stage of the buyer’s journey, allowing for unique experiences that reinforce the brand or design strategy. Technology is a tool with which brands can be creative, and thinking about it as a method of enhancing experiences, rather than a stand-alone experience, is the recipe for success.
Several brands have made waves in the retail world through their integration of technology. Luxury brands Gucci and Chanel weave tech into the purchase path and customer experience. Large chains like H&M are now expanding into the metaverse with new channels that literally combine the concept of online shopping with bricks-and-mortar.
The opportunities are limitless when it comes to introducing new technology into a concept store to create a unique experience, and looking for these possibilities across the organisation is a great place to start when thinking creatively about designing a one-of-a-kind concept store.
Brand-led, rather than product-led
Product is still really important (say it louder for the people in the back), so to create a unique and memorable store, the product still needs to be a focus; however, the product needs to be innately woven into your brand narrative and lifestyle – to project something more than a mere shop.
When we look at the retailers that have done exceptionally well and seemingly weathered every storm, they have one thing in common: a strong, clear brand strategy from which everything – product development, marketing, design, and operations – is carefully guided. It’s more than omnichannel, it’s about having a brand-first perspective that is creatively translated across all brand touchpoints, with a sense of authenticity that can’t be replicated.
Camilla has done this exceptionally well over the years, with a tribe of brand loyalists who are a part of an almost seamless experience no matter where they are engaged, while Lego’s unwavering commitment to ‘retailtainment’ has been a standout in store development.
The wealth of multisensory opportunities that bricks-and-mortar spaces provide brands can’t be replicated online. By starting at this point rather than seeing stores as an extension of their online presence – where customers only go to try things on – retailers can start to create unique, brand-centric experiences that gather an elusive cult following.