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In-Store Report Roundtable: Creating retail theatre

Drapers’ latest roundtable debated how visual merchandising specialists are using in-store technology, flexible environments and concept spaces to create retail theatre

Rather than declining in the digital age, the in-store environment is rising up the retail agenda. When a shopper hits the high street, they are looking to be wowed by retail theatre, which incorporates an innovative use of technology and great service. Get this opportunity right and you have created a singular experience the customer will remember, even if they ultimately convert online.

In association with design consultancy and retail architecture specialist GPStudio, Drapers invited visual merchandising specialists from the likes of Liberty, Selfridges and Arcadia to discuss in-store innovations. The roundtable at London’s Sanderson Hotel focused on how visual merchandising and technology can increase dwell time, drive sales and create a unique event.

Arcadia head of store design Guy Smith opened the discussion on whether increasing dwell time increases spend: “When someone is exposed to your brand, whether it is advertising in the street or when they are buying your product in store, you are either building up credit or losing their faith. That person might only be in the store for 10 minutes, but if they walk away feeling better about us, there is value in that.

“At Topshop it is about creating exciting, vibrant spaces. People shop online but they haven’t stopped going into shops. Go to Oxford Circus at 5pm on a Friday and it is vibrant and visceral.”

For Selfridges visual merchandising manager Molly Higgs, the aim is to make the store a shopping destination. “We want to create a reason for consumers to come into Selfridges rather than any other shop,” she said. “Events are becoming a lot bigger for us and our concept space is a real focus. Pop-ups are also a good way to drive people in store.”

David Moss contrasted the theatre of Selfridges with his role as the owner of premium men’s clothier Richard Gelding in North Audley Street, a short walk from the department store, saying: “My customers don’t want theatre. When they come into my little store, the primary thing they want is service.”

Elizabeth Silvester, head of visual identity at Liberty, agreed there can be too much theatre. “We try to personalise and create an environment that feels relaxed and homely. Our customers don’t want to feel like they are in an extreme environment.”

Partner and creative director of GPStudio Stuart Naysmith agreed that, while it is important for a store to be exciting, the service must back up this strategy or customers will lose interest. “In retail everybody talks about transaction, but customers will transact online. When they come in store they want an experience, they want service.”

An environment that is relevant for the customer is important to Giulio Cinque, owner of designer independent Giulio in Cambridge. “There needs to be a consistent environment,” he said. “It’s about where the customer feels good and the best retailers know their clients.”

This point of view was shared by Richard Edgecliffe-Johnson, chairman of Jermyn Street bespoke shoemaker Foster & Son. The shoemakers used to work downstairs in the store, immediately creating a sense of theatre. “Then, a property opportunity opened up and we were told if we moved the workshop upstairs it would be more efficient, but what a great loss that was,” Edgecliffe-Johnson recalled.

“I’m trying to find a way to bring the shoemakers back downstairs again and then people looking through the window could see shoemakers actually making shoes. My customers want human interaction and to speak to someone who really knows what they are talking about.”

The value of good staff is crucial to Arcadia, said Smith, who identified how important it can be for a great fitting room just at the moment when a customer makes their purchase decision.

“There is all sorts of amazing technology out there. You can have RFID (radio-frequency identification) tags in every garment, so when customers walk into the fitting room a screen flashes up suggesting accessories that match. What you are actually talking about is using technology to provide the same service as a good member of staff.”

Cecile Reinaud, owner of premium maternity brand Séraphine, agreed that the pivotal changing room moment is often a big disappointment. “Too many retailers put a huge effort into getting customers to pick a lot of garments, but when you get into the changing room it’s small, has terrible lighting and no service. Getting the changing room right is the next step for the big retailers.”

The growth of in-store technology at Kent shopping centre Bluewater has been phenomenal over the past five years, according to its retail manager Kate Crowe. “iPads are pretty much the norm, and staff say the technology drives incremental sales. They are using things like iPads to showcase the product.”

However, get the technology wrong and you could lose the customer. Reinaud shared a changing room story about visiting US womenswear retailer Rebecca Minkoff’s New York store. “Nothing worked. There was a big screen to order drinks, but my tea never turned up. I couldn’t work the screen even though I’m quite tech savvy. It was too complicated and not well executed. I didn’t feel comfortable and the whole experience was a total let-down.”

Partner and managing director at GPStudio Gregor Jackson underlined the need for in-store technology to be properly integrated. “The website is the heart of the flagship and technology has a vital part to play. One click on the interactive table on the screen in McQ in Mayfair and it feels like you open up to the whole Alexander McQueen world.”

“Another good example would be when I was shopping recently for trainers on the high street,” Jackson continued. “The Schuh store didn’t have the colour I wanted, but with a screen the sales assistant and I shopped online together. The use of technology converted to a sale rather than me walking out and buying elsewhere.”

Topshop and Topman store design manager Ben Phillips sees a growing confidence among retailers, who are using technology to better advantage. “Recently, there was a blind panic among retailers, who were slapping up screens everywhere in fear of missing out,” he said. “Now, retailers are asking how they can use technology and, in some cases, realising they don’t need it, which is a big breakthrough.”

The tactics of food retailers were of interest for Ian Maclean, managing director of knitwear brand John Smedley, who wondered if self-checkouts in supermarkets could work in fashion. “Technology in food retail is driving towards not having to interact with any person in store, which is allowing food retailers to take out the cost of people.”

However, Higgs believes this would never happen in fashion, a view echoed by Reinaud, who reckons the in-store phenomenon is all about being tactile and taking a break from looking at screens.

All roundtable participants saw the value of pop-ups to attract different customers into store. For Liberty, every pop-up or special event has to have local significance. “It’s not just about fashion, we look at everything. We worked with the National Theatre during London Fashion Week and work regularly with the Tate Gallery, using our windows for a major exhibition promotion. We work with brands who present something different. That way you make a department store feel like a cultural experience,” Silvester explained.

While the main focus at Selfridges is on its own visual merchandising, pop-ups help reinvent the space on a weekly basis. “We want to make sure every time our customers come in they see something different and make it relevant to seasonal trends,” said Higgs.

For Arcadia’s Smith, the sense of newness comes from being creative with the store environment. “When you’re talking about flexible space you’re talking about the lighter touches, which can have great visual impact. Product changes on a daily basis, VM will change every week, but the furniture might only change every few months or year.”

Creating flexible environments and pop-ups are all techniques to keep pace with customer demand for newness. Every effort, however, comes back to delivering the best possible customer experience. Service is king, and in-store technology is only valuable when used to make shopping seamless.

Do retailers need to focus on the click-and-collect journey?

Kate Crowe, retail manager, Bluewater

Kate Crowe

Kate Crowe

“Click-and-collect is enormous, because it’s so convenient. You get what you want and go home. Sometimes you find what you are looking for and buy something else. It’s about giving consumers the choice. It isn’t about replacing service, as customers are becoming even more demanding about service.”

Giulio Cinque, owner of premium independent Giulio

Giulio Cinque

Giulio Cinque

“Through independent fashion portal Farfetch we offer click-and-collect for other boutique partners. That means potential new customers coming into store. The whole idea is the upsell and engagement process.”

Atty Hussein, director of logistics, Fortnum & Mason

Atty Hussein

Atty Hussein

“The customer experience team [believes] we need to bring click-and-collect into the heart of the store for Christmas. We are looking at working with Doddle, so if customers don’t want to come into store they can pick up their parcels at their train stations.”

Ben Philips, young brands design manager, Topshop/Topman

Ben Philips

Ben Philips

“Click-and-collect is generally done at the till point. There is a desire to unite it with the fitting room element and make it more seamless, rather than having a counter stuck on the end of the cash desk.”


Arcadia: Phillip Burch, senior interior designer (young fashion) Arcadia Group; Ben Phillips, store design manager, Topshop/Topman; Guy Smith, head of store design, Arcadia Group

Bluewater: Kate Crowe, retail manager

Fortnum & Mason: Atty Hussein, director of logistics     

Foster & Son: Richard Edgecliffe-Johnson, chairman     

Giulio: Giulio Cinque, owner

John Smedley: Ian Maclean, managing director;

Liberty: Elizabeth Silvester, head of visual identity; Michael Edward Stephens, graphic design manager

Richard Gelding: David Moss, owner

Selfridges: Molly Higgs, visual merchandising manager; Ami Speed, senior visual merchandiser

Séraphine: Cecile Reinaud, founder       

Temperley London: Olivia Daniel, manager boutique flagship; Laura Quercioli, retail area manager, head of flagship        

From sponsor GPstudio: Gregor Jackson, partner; Linzi Lithgow, studio manager; Stuart Naysmith, partner and creative director

From Drapers: James Knowles, features and special reports editor; Michael Richardson, senior account manager; Charlotte Rogers, features and special reports writer

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