Experiences are the new currency in retail. In every sector, actually.
Interactive, shareable, in-real-life experiences designed to spark sensory, emotional, cognitive and rational engagement, savvy store campaigns can generate phenomenal ROI across the board, from sales and PR to brand loyalty, new customer attraction and retention.
But in a world where the gloomy predictions for traditional brick-and-mortar stores are becoming a reality and online shopping is inheriting the retail crown, is the IRL branded experience still relevant?
The straight answer is yes.
According to AnyRoad, 81% of brands say their event and experiential budgets will ‘match or exceed’ pre-pandemic levels in 2022, with companies ramping up investment in experiential marketing to parallel consumer cravings for in-person experiences.
A reinvigorated competitive landscape is now taking shape. Brands are pouring big money into creating their own physical spaces, driven by a nostalgia for human-to-human connection over the convenient digital shopping experiences we take for granted and a post-pandemic zest for playfulness and sense-enhancing environments.
The reinvention of retail stores, now adapted to new customer expectations and innovations, combined with the widespread availability of digitally enhanced experiences, means now is the time for brands to make their mark with impactful, immersive and imaginative IRL activations. In 2022, we’re not just purchasing products – we’re paying for experiences.
Digital’s Connectivity Issues
The last decade has seen vast changes in the retail space, with both online and offline integrating to create an ever-evolving shopping experience.
Digital retail, while convenient, is a more challenging space to create meaningful connections in. And although many consumers, particularly Gen Z, are managing to find sentiment and community on social media, the stats don’t lie.
Consumer analytics firm Adoreboard surveyed 10,000 18-34 year olds and found that on an emotional level, 49% preferred to shop in physical stores, compared to 39% who preferred websites, and 11% who preferred apps.
Despite the convenience of digital, there’s still nothing like getting up close and personal when making purchase decisions, especially at a time when ‘more and more, consumers are shopping with their emotions instead of their wallets.’
An emotional connection incentivises customers to return and share their personal, positive experiences through word-of-mouth – a strong marketing ally. It’s no wonder then, that brands are looking for opportunities to create imaginative experiences that create both great memories for the consumer and ‘synergies that improve loyalty.’
Making a Branded House a Home
The fusion of a conventional retail environment and entertainment space is gaining traction. Coined ‘retailtainment’, brands are looking to drive commercial revenue by immersing consumers in the essence of their world, often with added wow factor.
Only this week (25th-31st July) Apple unveiled their latest London store on Brompton Road, Knightsbridge. Set in a restored arcade, the tech giants are launching an immersive AR experience to coincide with the opening. Premiering exclusively at their newest location, ‘United Visions’ brings the work of painter and poet William Blake to life through augmented reality.
Reimaginings of physical brand spaces as playgrounds, galleries and studios is on the rise in more than just tech.
Tiffany & Co. are celebrating 185 years of diamond-studded innovation with an exhibition at London’s Saatchi Gallery titled ‘Vision & Virtuosity’ (review coming soon).
Meanwhile House of Vans, located in Waterloo, is a physical manifestation of the culture and community that defines the iconic footwear label. Home to an underground skatepark and simultaneous music venue, it’s ‘a place where imagination lets loose over concrete bowls, art installations, workshops & concert stages.’
High-end activewear brand Lululemon is known for transforming their stores into studios, hosting yoga sessions with local instructors across their locations, while multinational beauty retailer Sephora is universally-adored for their in-store beauty tutorials, workshops, meet and greets and more.
Creating holistic spaces that combine community, culture and lifestyle while offering multi-sensory opportunities to play and shop are essential to increasing footfall in stores. Brands who want to compete need to be asking: ‘What’s literally in store for our customers?’ ‘Where’s the incentive, beyond basic human interaction?’
It’s certainly not a new idea. Loved by bohemians and hipsters alike, Urban Outfitters’ concept store, Space Ninety 8, has had Williamsburg’s heart since 2014. From showcasing local Brooklynite artists and designers to hosting happy hours, events and gigs, the venue acts as a primarily social space with room for guests to become customers if something catches their eye.
Space Ninety 8 is so popular that Urban Outfitters opened a second location a year after their initial launch in Austin, Texas – offering even more events, pop-ups and wellness classes than its New York counterpart and proving that alleviating any overt commercial aspect in these properties can’t be a bad idea.
The Power of Pop-Ups
For brands who haven’t actively explored experiential retail, pop-ups are an appealing, temporary and cost-effective option – for experts and novices alike.
Although they can be fairly rapid activations, they achieve the same sense of connection-building that is a defining benefit of the in-store experience. Whether it’s a rented commercial space or a decked-out minivan, at their simplest, pop-ups act as meaningful, and potentially powerful, brand extensions – their temporary nature adding an element of exclusivity and limited-edition that is so attractive to modern consumers.
Springing up in malls, squares and streets across the globe, often fairly unexpectedly, these ephemeral, physical spaces create a sense of urgency, praying on consumers’ FOMO to compel passersby to interact.
The world’s favourite colour company, Pantone, opens a pop-up café during Monaco’s summers. Though it’s a minimal menu of delicate pastries and vibrant juices, every order is branded with a signature colour swatch. Sometimes it’s the little things.
Sometimes, however, brands go big. And abstract.
Bespoke travel brand, Black Tomato, creates pop-up hotels in rare, untouched locations around the world for luxury travellers to experience unique and untrodden places. Titled ‘Blink And You’ll Miss It’, the campaign is designed to tap into travellers' desire for temporary, one-of-a-kind experiences.
Whatever the scale – local, global, a day, a week, a month – a pop-up’s primary purpose is hype-generation. Capitalise on the FOMO, deliver a fun, unforgettable experience and your customer will do the rest.
Despite the focus on in-store reality, brands shouldn’t be afraid of virtual enhancements. Next-gen digital solutions are paving the way for ever more creative and imaginative campaigns, brought to life through the likes of AR and VR. It’s Web3 meets the hyper-physical.
Leveraging both physical and digital assets to create the ultimate immersive experience that captures consumers’ attention is the smartest way for brands to stay ahead of the fundamental changes in retail habits.
According to a survey by L.E.K. Consulting, as many as 80% of consumers who consider themselves early tech adopters “are interested in using VR to enhance their shopping experience”.
One brand emphatically embracing a hybrid relationship between tech and the real-world retail is Italian luxury goods company Salvatore Ferragamo.
The brand’s newly conceived concept store in NYC’s Soho has caused quite the stir in luxury experience circles. 2600 square feet of immersive experiences, from customisation services to their main act: user generated NFTs.
Partnering with digital artist Shxpir, 256 customers have the chance to co-create their own NFT artwork that can be minted free of charge. Within the store, those who are less crypto-curious or blockchain-savvy have unlimited access to experts who will guide them through creating an Ethereum wallet for their asset.
Alongside the mirrored NFT-building booth stands a six foot tall wall onto which customers can project a hologram of the 6R3ENE sneaker as they customise the design.
Ferragamo’s North America CEO Daniella Vitale asserts:
‘We’re in the entertainment business, we’re not just in the retail business. We need to give people a reason to cross that threshold – the confluence of technology and art and commerce and creativity.’
Creating places that satisfy all the senses as well as consumer interests can only elevate your market standing. From concept stores to pop-ups to invite-only getaways, IRL retail is a fundamental facet to the 360 brand experience. Cover your bases and it’s impossible to not score the home run.
More than ever, consumers are looking to belong.
They want to discover brands that speak to them and their values, and there’s no better place to do that than in person. Experiential marketing solutions offer a fantastic opportunity to combine the best of on- and offline retail into a seamless experience.
But, whether it’s amping up an existing destination, or creating an entirely new experience proposition, brands need to think imaginatively to compete in today's saturated experience market. Combine interactive displays, augmented and virtual reality, hands-on product testing and rich media content with online shopping and you’ll stay ahead of the game.
Question yourself. What is it that will make your activation unmissable, unique and shareable? Will it drive brand awareness through PR, UGC and advocacy in the long term?
Ensure the above, get inspired and make your IRL as innovative as your URL.
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