Recapture the magic

Two international design experts, i-AM founder Tim Jeffery and creative strategy director Pete Champion, give their insights into making the retail experience more inspiring

It should be a joy to empower consumers with the paraphernalia of real magic – smartphones, 3D, 4K OLED wraparound, immersive audio media set-ups, augmented and virtual reality gizmos, gaming consoles and every piece of modern wizardry in between.

The genie has been out of that particular retail bottle for some time, however, and the reality for most retailers and their customers in this sector is by and large far from joyful.

Instead of inspirational, experiential retail, the norm tends to be a disappointingly grubby encounter for all involved, born of rampant commoditisation where selling high volumes at the lowest price for high-value items seems the dominant agenda.

Tim Jeffery
Tim Jeffery

In the European electrical sector, Retail Index puts Dixons Retail Group in fourth place and Argos fifth. Euronics is second and is looking to increase its foothold in the painfully competitive UK market.

Despite this market’s appealing size, it’s hard to turn a profit here. As well as the factors mentioned above, many of the players are, brick ‘rich’ and cash poor. Actually, it’s worse than that, because many don’t even own the bricks.

So, it is no surprise that retailers continue to struggle with the balance of online and physical retailing, and getting the model right will sort the winners from the losers.

Despite gaining percentage points year on year, internet players are not finding it easy going and the need to build loyalty in a very unloyal market requires a bold new strategy. Amazon chief Jeff Bezos has trialled, and has stated he’d open large numbers of, physical stores – if the perfect model between online and off-line retailing could be found.

A familiar name when it comes to experiential retail. The Apple Store on London's Regent Street was designed by Foster + Partners
A familiar name when it comes to experiential retail. The Apple Store on London’s Regent Street was designed by Foster + Partners

Ebuyer.com is one of the largest independent British e-tailers, with around four million registered customers. Trade magazine PCR reported that its managing director Stuart Carlisle was also considering a move into physical stores.

The reaction so far from (originally) off-line tech retail brands against the march of this commoditisation combined with online, supermarkets and direct retail by manufacturers, has centred on survival through consolidation, scale and buying power. Catch-up with online, and promotion of the idea of customer need-centred expertise, has been mission-critical, more than brand and proposition differentiation.

The problem is simple but, as we know, simple does not mean easy. We are a nation of ‘tyre-kickers’, demanding the best quality and price for immediate delivery. Online retailers offer the best price as they have lower overheads, but consumers still want to see, feel and buy products in-store. Thus the channel balance has to be one of mutual support – a complementary range of services that provide the best customer service and overall experience.

Pete Champion
Pete Champion

So, where do we go from here? Is there hope of recapturing the magic of selling these exciting products in a physical retail context? What might that look like?

We imagine a brand experience that you could trust and wouldn’t need to go anywhere else. Physical retailing should be the richest product touch point. If you are not a brand, then you are a commodity proposition judged by price alone – not a fun place to be.

For sure, the very purpose of physical retail in the channel mix for specialist tech retailers is being transformed. Consumers will require more inspiration and advice, fewer transactional warehouses. But also, the common factor linking the above ideals, goes back to the universal basics of great retail design.

Realising that despite their fast-developing expectations and demands, and the digitisation of life, all consumers are still human.

In our concepts for Daikin Solution Plazas, we used the principle of a blend of physical presentation, working demonstration and interactive digital media to add value by making the invisible, visible. Product ranges are brought to life almost in the manner of the best Science Museum exhibits
In our concepts for Daikin Solution Plazas, we used the principle of a blend of physical presentation, working demonstration and interactive digital media to add value by making the invisible, visible. Product ranges are brought to life almost in the manner of the best Science Museum exhibits

Understanding them and their lives, defining what they will really value – emotionally as well as functionally, in an overly-rationalised sector – could shape changes, big or small, in physical store experience that really enrich lives. This helps move towards that transformational holy grail – customers that are emotionally connected to your brand, are loyal to you, and tell their friends why your retail experience is better than the alternatives.

  • i-AM is a London-based international branding and interior design agency.

www.i-amonline.com

  • Image top: Our recent concept for Turkcell stores across Turkey shows presents tech products in a space with unexpected cues. The stores feel more like cafés or hospitality spaces – the opposite of the expected hi-tech feel of most similar outfits