This is what we mean when we talk about the social side of shopping. It’s real, it’s authentic, and it can’t be faked. The store thrives despite its limitations in size and stock holding, and its turnover is growing. While space is at a premium, the owner is adamant that the table at the entrance stays. It’s the heart of the business.
Social shopping, while existing in the digital world of Facebook, Instagram and influencers, has a different meaning in the three-dimensional world of physical shops. We have become so used to functional and transactional shopping that we’ve almost forgotten the other reason we go shopping: to engage with our friends and family, to be around like-minded people, exchanging ideas and nurturing our souls.
Social communities in retail don’t just happen. They aren’t generated by email lists and catalogue drops. They certainly aren’t about selling; that is the result but not the approach. Communities are made by engaging customers around shared values and interests.
Community is in their nature
Take the latest iteration of outdoor brand REI’s concept in North Conway, New Hampshire, for example. For a start, it’s located not where its customers (members) live and work, but where they go to enjoy the outdoors. The outdoor-gear store’s goal is simply to connect customers with nature, rather than to sell them stuff.
In a simple and sustainably designed retail environment, a third of the space is devoted to an experience and rental bar in the centre of the store. The area facilitates workshops and is an assembly point for guided tours and exploration. REI reaches out to local community groups and organisations to achieve this and support the success of the region.
The store has been designed for efficient delivery, so members spend less time in store and more time enriching their souls in the outdoors.
Devoting the entire centre of the store to something that’s not merchandise may seem crazy to old-school retailers. But in the spirit of community, it expresses REI’s commitment to sharing and facilitating the values and passions of its members. It gives people a reason to go shopping, instead of just looking for the best deals online.
A space for making friends and more
Another example of this, closer to home, is a project the author collaborated on with shopping centre developer Mirvac. The company has moved to the forefront of breathing new life into old formats by investigating ways of refreshing the tenancy mix. Mirvac uses creative leasing strategies to bring in new retail categories and startups.
One of these is a new concept Mirvac runs called WeMake in the centre of the mall at Rhodes Waterside, in Sydney. It’s a creative studio, built for workshops and people who like to make things, build, and tinker. The space opens to all of the mall’s retailers and also to individuals who want to rent it for events and parties.
You can do anything from painting, sculpting and cheesemaking, to learning robotics and coding from Jaycar Electronics next door. WeMake is somewhere you can go and meet people with the same passions and interests as yourself. And guess what? It doesn’t sell anything. You make your own merchandise.
Initiatives like this help people de-stress, explore their creativity, and build a sense of community.
These concept stores don’t exist purely in three dimensions, each has its digital support network of websites, online booking and purchasing, and dedicated social media where fans can talk to one another and swap stories. But the physical part is all about social interaction and communicating with others.
In the future, this type of social retail will become the norm. As transactional retail moves more and more online, with fulfilment centres and deliveries providing the goods, physical retail will become more about experience. We’ll visit shopping destinations because we enjoy them, not because it’s necessary. Shops will rely less on stock levels and more on affecting how we feel about ourselves, the people around us, our environment, and our society.
How to build a community
So how’s it done? First, authenticity is essential. Building a community means talking to your customers about your shared values and passions, not about selling them stuff. If you’re a running shoe shop, start a running club. If you’re a community grocer, set up volunteer initiatives within your community.
Encourage people to share, word of mouth is important. Organising events on Meetup and Eventbrite allows people to gather and share their experiences.
Simply making space is important. People need space to gather, even if it’s just for a coffee – like at our favourite supermarket in Queensland.
In an increasingly crowded, stressful, and challenging world, people will reach out for what’s real – real relationships, real experiences, real food, real emotions.
The successful retailers will be the ones that can create the social experience and keep it real.