Online fashion and physical stores are coming of age as retailers seek to fuse the two worlds into a compelling offer.
Digital commerce is one thing, but physical retail is quite another. That, or a version of it, was until recently the view that seemed to be taken by many fashion retailers.
However, with the advent of multichannel, retail attitudes have now changed and those in the vanguard of the digital revolution are successfully melding the virtual and the physical.
The methods by which this is being done vary widely, as do the reasons for doing so, but the objective is to create a compelling in-store experience that appeals to today’s multichannel consumer and puts money in the till.
Womenswear chain Oasis sought to bridge the gap between bricks and clicks by introducing iPads into its stores in 2011, and for deputy managing director Hash Ladha, the direction of travel is clear: “The idea was for the consumer to be able to complete a journey by not having to go to multiple places in a store.”
He adds that since introduction their use has broadened: “For us the iPads have become about stock look-up, they’re tills, they offer guidelines and they’re social feeds.”
At Oasis, use of digital devices is about helping staff to improve the shopper experience and fusing the online and terrestrial worlds. By contrast, in Marks & Spencer the objective is to offer shoppers access to the whole of the retailer’s fashion offer, alongside everything else it sells.
Benjy Meyer, head of new channels development at Marks & Spencer, says: “We have the Style Online initiative - where we have a small store and we condense the range so that it sits on the rail with one size, normally a 12, per colour and style and then shoppers can interact with this digitally via screens.” This means a larger range can be accommodated within an existing store, he says.
There is also value as far as the store staff are concerned, according to Meyer. “The staff become stylists, in effect,” he says, adding: “It’s about giving colleagues the capacity to start a conversation.” This, perhaps, is rather the point about making technology an integral part of a retailer’s physical offer. It is relatively easy to put technology into a store, but there has to be a reason for it to be done. Technology for its own sake is expensive and probably unnecessary.
Peter Cross, retail expert and director at PR firm Portas, says that when it comes to using digital technology to enhance the in-store experience it is still early days: “I remember when All Saints put iPads into its stores and it felt like progress. But have people really leveraged technology as part of the in-store experience? It feels like we’re still on page one.”
Retailers are also having to think about how to incorporate technology to cater for m-commerce into their store design, with things like QR codes common in many stores, while mobile payments are also gaining pace.
However, with the boundaries between digital and physical worlds melting away, fashion retailers will need to find innovative ways of integrating the channels into a seamless and cohesive store design, or face losing out to those that do.
New Look, Marble Arch - Value
From its use of QR codes when they seemed to be the answer to all things (little more than a year ago), to the current state of play where there are virtual changing rooms, digital photo screens in place of heads for mannequins and in-store iPads, New Look can be identified as a digital haven.
Perhaps owing to the relatively young demographic that tends to frequent this branch, the interesting part is that much of what is on view is actually being test-driven by customers.
The point that perhaps needs to be made about what has been done in this store is that New Look, owing to the low-margin nature of the offer, does not have huge amounts of capital expenditure to play with when it comes to changing the in-store experience.
This in itself is interesting, as although Guy Lister, customer and multichannel managing director, admits that equipping the Marble Arch store has cost considerably more than a standard New Look branch, this does not mean it is beyond the reach of the rank and file branches.
Marks & Spencer, Cheshire Oaks - Middle market
Take a trip to the Cheshire Oaks flagship store, which opened in September 2012, and it is overwhelmingly clear that this is a digital store. In the store’s fashion areas this is obvious from the beacons dotted around the space topped by a circular banner that reads ‘Browse & Order’. Even in a store that measures 151,000 sq ft, it is not possible to put everything out on the floor and the Browse & Order points are designed to allow shoppers to enter the broader M&S merchandise world.
The physical apparatus that allows this to happen looks a little like an outsize iPhone that has been turned on its side. And importantly, staff have been trained to use the screens in order to help shoppers who might be struggling with the technology.
There is much to be said for the “digital hub”, as M&S has dubbed this branch, insofar as many of the initiatives that have been installed are likely to prove portable and capable of being implemented in (much)smaller branches.
Burberry, Regent Street - Top end
At the top end of the market, the Burberry global flagship on Regent Street shows what is possible when it comes to melding the digital and physical retail worlds if money is, if not unlimited, at least more readily available. Every member of staff packs an iPad, ready to help shoppers engage with the ranges and it puts service at the heart of customer experience.
Then there’s the giant screen in the store’s impressive main room. It’s the biggest of its kind in any retail establishment, and when Burberry stages its catwalk shows these are streamed live to the screen.
The flagship also utilises RFID tags in the store. When a shopper takes a garment into one of the fitting rooms, the tag triggers pre-loaded content to appear on one of the mirrors, which then morphs into a screen.
This store is a glimpse of the future for less rarefied offers. It is probably the closest that fashion retail has come to making in-store digital a compelling reality.
That said, there is much about what is on view that has the sense of technology for its own sake, rather than as a means of really increasing sales, but perhaps that might prove to be the digital future experience.