In the final part of our Best Practice series, our experts look at how physical stores can stand firm against online competition and the tough economy
The words ‘it’s tough out there’ do much to sum up the opinion of many, if not all, bricks-and-mortar retailers about the state of play in the fashion market. For starters, there’s the global financial crisis, which naturally is making shoppers reluctant to spend. Then there’s the little matter of an imminent rise in business rates and the pressure on margins as costs head north.
However, the real elephant in the room for bricks-and-mortar retailers is the internet and sit-at-home shoppers, which many seem to think will result in a brisk trot to the offices of the administrator … unless something remarkable changes.
Maybe so, but not everything is lost. While there may be a few more losers than winners in the current climate, there are still opportunities for those prepared to examine the way in which they carry out the everyday business of running a shop.
Most retailers with large property portfolios are examining the way in which they do things and questioning whether they need quite as many stores as they have.
But talking to a representative cross-section of retailers and those whose job it is to create retail interiors for them, one thing is clear: the physical shop is far from dead. And with retailers such as lifestyle chain White Stuff making a virtue of being low-tech in their window displays, not every future looks digital - and there may even be a reaction brewing against online shopping.
Shoppers are changing, as are high streets, but this doesn’t mean retailers with stores are going to hell in a handcart. But how can retailers create a store that gives shoppers a reason to step inside? We asked retailers and store designers for their thoughts.
Chief executive of shopfitting firm CDS Group
The key components to getting customers back onto the high street are to make the shopping experience exactly that, an experience. Retail theatre, innovative use of technology and the all-important human element are all key components.
A key trend emerging in retail interiors is the requirement for adaptable space, allowing for events outside of the traditional shopping experience, such as new product launches, loyalty scheme social events, and fashion shows.
New Look’s Marble Arch store is a good example of digital media in store. The fashion retailer utilises augmented reality apps offering fully interactive engagement within the store and is complementing its social media strategy by allowing customers to share items with their friends. Embracing the online offering in store also allows shoppers to scan QR codes, driving them to purchase the item online to avoid queuing or if a particular size or item in store is out of stock.
Stores are starting to introduce Bodymetric scanning to establish body shape, which will then recommend specific items for the customer’s shape. Augmented reality apps are becoming widespread in retail also, allowing [further] interactive engagement with the [brand] offering in-store, including celebrity interviews, catwalk shows and how-to-wear-it guides. However, it is possible to utilise too much technology and confuse customers, particularly those who are of a generation less accustomed to widespread use of smartphones and QR codes.
There is also a trend to customise the shop to the location within the UK. This lets the customer enjoy ‘their high street’ tailored specifically to them and they enjoy the feeling of the shop being a ‘one-off’. A good example of this is Paul Smith, where each store is unique. Similarly, CDS was able to assist Levi’s when the retailer outfitted its flagship store on Regent Street in London, where the history and development of the brand was represented, almost creating both a flagship store and Levi’s museum.
The customer experience is also vital. Therefore creating an easy-to-navigate store that allows customers to find what they are looking for and any complementary items and accessories should be of the highest priority.
Staff that are highly trained, efficient, helpful and knowledgeable of both the products and layout of a store are also crucial.
Head of design at Arcadia Group
I think as far as our stores are concerned, we’re in the right place. If you think about what we’ve been doing with Google and before that Facebook [screening Topshop fashion shows live] to show our fashions, that works, but what we’re not doing is putting kiosks in shops. Why would we want to do that?
If you think about it, something like 60% of people in the UK have smartphones, so if you do have in-store technology, it’s going to have to be incredibly good to be better than that - and the chances are that it really won’t be. So what we’re opting to do is capture shoppers in store via their smartphones. It’s potentially a far better way of engaging with them than offering in-store interactivity via a touchscreen.
It’s all about starting an in-store conversation. But it’s early days and lots of others have tried multichannel with questionable returns on investment and the store environment. Kiosks tend not to look that great, whatever form they might take.
You have to build your website and your apps in a way that helps with the customer journey when the shopper arrives in the store. We provide a visceral fashion experience at Topshop’s Oxford Street store, for instance, and why would we want to break that experience? It’s all about innovation, certainly, but this doesn’t mean it’s all about technology.
Paul Turner- Mitchell
Co-owner of Rochdale young fashion indie 25 Ten Boutique
For a lot of businesses at the moment it’s quite hard to change, because they’re tied into long leases. The multiples can identify loss-making stores and end leases by paying to get out of them. It’s difficult for the indie market because the indies have joined the technology thing too late and they’ve not got the money to do it really. They’re seeing footfall decline and it’s a more reactive than proactive approach.
There is still much to be done by looking at what others are doing. At the start of the recession, three or four years ago, I took a step back from my shop and went to look at every shop in the local area. I thought, ‘We’ve got to give them a reason to come into our shop’. The problem was that we were selling the same things as everywhere else.
So what we realised was that if we were going to compete we’d have to stock up-and-coming labels that aren’t available anywhere else.
For us this means [creating] a store that relies on product and visual merchandising, ahead of in-store technical wizardry.
For smaller retailers, the approach of competing by exception seems a positive way forward, when faced with the pressures of making the virtual world have a presence in a shop.
It also means we can give meaning to the idea that there is still money to be made from straightforward shopkeeping and good buying, rather than trying to adapt to include the next big thing. We must be one of the few retailers that has a genuine Sale that begins on January 1, because of our buying policy and strategy.
Global head of store design at young fashion business SuperGroup
We’ve been associated with retail interiors that deliver an ‘experience’ based on a feeling of the real, thanks to a closely controlled material palette. This is about offering theatre and a real wow factor. Individual retailers will have their own way of doing this. The denim players, for instance, have a very clear way of going about it, and then you’ll have the big high street players and they’ll have a different way of doing it again.
For Superdry, we do things by using real materials, like oak, steel and real brick. And the interesting thing is that the approach may actually be cheaper than choosing to adopt substitute [man-made] materials. We also treat each store on a case-by-case basis. And by looking at every unit individually we are able to use some of the character of the building itself.
Practically, this means that when the Regent Street flagship opened in 2012, it had a parquet floor using oak from Belgium. We used steel mid-shop unitry and the height of the interior was used to an advantage. We also made a nod in the direction of new technology with a large screen used to illuminate the ground floor cash-taking area, which meant we could provide visual stimulus for those waiting in line at the cash desk on the ground floor.
That said, the great majority of Superdry stores are lower-tech than many high street operations and there is a sense that what you see is what you get, reflected in the choice of materials. When it comes to price and making sure we keep things controlled, we’ve got a full department that analyses the cost per square metre in each shop, so we can keep within our budget.