Rebecca Roke discusses how, far from turning their backs on bricks and mortar retailing in favour of online alternatives, savvy brands are espousing a new model that offers both the spectacle of retail and the immediacy of the digital space.
“You cannot compartmentalise it into online versus bricks-and-mortar. The consumer moves seamlessly from looking at content online, potentially buying online, or looking at and shopping for it elsewhere.” — Chris Sanderson, The Future Laboratory.
W’hile Sundays in Paris are perfect for the flaneur, unlike open-all-hours New York, London or Tokyo, they can be a frustration for the unsuspecting shopper in search of boutiques. So on a spring Sunday along Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore, it was unusual to see a cluster of enthralled tourists in front of the Hermes store windows, mouths agog and camera phones snapping — the shop doors nevertheless ferme.
Inside each window, an assembly of coveted luxury goods had been clustered chromatically in front of Venezuelan artist Manuel Merida’s large silently rotating discs holding loosely filled pigmented sand -purple, orange, pink, green, yellow. Merchandise was perfectly arranged and colour-coordinated while, behind, the vibrant powders slowly shifted in their orbs. Though no money was changing hands, the spectacle of this display perfectly communicates the power of a savvy 21st century brand, many of which are luxury labels — the ability to arrest and hold the attention of a distracted passerby, to build brand awareness and, ultimately, to inspire purchase.
Though the idea of retail spectacle isn’t novel, as magnates such as Harry Gordon Selfridge, who established the renowned Selfridges department store in 1909 knew, shrewd retail is an art that requires strategy, newness and cunning. Since the early 20th century rise of shopping as leisure, the need to attract shoppers and sustain their attention across multiple retail platforms has intensified. The consumer world now has no barriers to shopping — wherever the internet prevails, neither space nor time prevents purchase. In such a changing landscape, one of the increasing aspects of profitable retailing is about creating moments of theatre that transport the viewer — and, ideally, their dollars — into sales and builds allegiance to a brand.
Co-founder of The Future Laboratory, Chris Sanderson, understands this perfectly, noting: “What successful retail is continuing to do is give something from the [store] visit, which you can’t get online… most research shows that consumers are more and more happy to buy online.” The Future Laboratory should know. Established in 2001 as a specialist in trend forecasting, brand strategy and consumer insight, it has seen its influence grow and part of what it offers subscribers now includes quarterly forums on leading edge consumer advice -from the latest trends to statistical market shifts. Synthesising a rigorous combination of data and inspiration, its Retail Futures Forum held in London recently is one of the key topics it covers at least every two years, providing subscribers with a cross-section of tactical advice about long- and short-term trends to navigate through difficult and perplexing economic times.
Three main ‘future proofed’ retail themes were presented at the Forum: ‘Total Retail’, a Schwarzenegger-like description for the complex online networks such as Facebook, Google and Amazon that use their data for extremely personalised and targeted interactive retail strategies; the portmanteau ‘Phy-gital’ (physical and digital), which manifests in the ways digital mega-systems are seen and experienced in the physical world — such as at Burberry’s enormous flagship on Regent Street — as well as virtual stores copying aspects of physical spaces. But, while integrated with the other two, perhaps of most interest to architects and designers is the third notion, ‘BAM!’ a juiced-up acronym for bricks-and-mortar. Countering fear-mongering about the omnipotence of online shopping, Sanderson asserts: “We’re not talking about the last days of high street or mall retail — it’s not going to go away, it’s just changing… you cannot separate business and compartmentalise it into online versus bricks-and-mortar. The consumer moves seamlessly from looking at content online, potentially buying online, or looking at and shopping for it elsewhere.”
In this fluid arrangement in which shoppers still like to visit physical stores but now want to search online for the best deal, too, the ‘spectacle’ of retail is increasingly becoming as important as the more measurable ‘sales per square metre’. As such, the future of successful retail is likely to demand immersive, engaging spaces that also tell a story — Acne’s red peep-show shop in Copenhagen and Apple stores worldwide being prime examples.
Likewise, the popularity of work by Gary Card demonstrates this trend — and his professional moniker of set designer, rather than visual merchandiser, is testament to this. With clients that include Stella McCartney, Comme des Garmons and Kike, Card sees his role as an “opportunity to tell a story within a space”. The evolution of his work is no longer just about highlighting the product, but also creating a performance.In an interview for the The Future Laboratory’s online trend forecasting network, LS:K Global, he points out: “[Retailers are] becoming an awful lot more open-minded about what they commission — it’s not just about a shop window.” Probably his most admired work is LN-CC, an East London store selling clothing, books and records, as well as a club space for private events and a working photography studio. From lighting, to air temperature (‘cool’ for Rick Owens; warmer for ready-to-wear) to more obvious scenographic changes, Card’s design for LN-CC manipulates people’s response to different parts of the space.
In contrast to the quietly evocative Hermes windows of that Parisian Sunday morning, this theatricality occurs on a larger scale in the arresting displays for which Selfridges has become known. Under the enthusiastic creative direction of Alannah Weston, the iconic Oxford Street department store is now widely ogled — inside and out — and keeps competitors such as Liberty and Harvey Nichols on their toes. The store’s 2012 collaboration with Louis Vuitton and Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama is a case in point. With characteristic enthusiasm, Selfridges went to town, its windows filled with eerie armies of over-sized Kusama dolls amid spotted lands of wonder and ethereal white pumpkin-like forms — a motif of Kusama’s work. In an interview with The Observer, Weston said at the time: “I like to think we are in the entertainment business as much as the retail business…
We want people to always leave Selfridges with something, of course, but it is fine, too for people to come and just feel they have had a wonderful time.”
And while it’s true that digital, transferable, clickable, downloadable and instantaneous shopping is on the rise, queues to see what Selfridges — or any other switched-on retailer has conjured up -maintain popularity. Perhaps the most interesting twist of all is that the department store’s recent intervention, located in the basement, sells nothing. Part of the ‘No Noise’ campaign, architect Alex Cochrane’s The Silence Room is a blessed respite from sales and showmanship that, ironically, is proving as popular as the cathedral of commerce housing it.