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Welcome to our world: designing an immersive store

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As the term “experiential retail” becomes mainstream, we investigate the challenges and opportunities for those tasked with designing stores.

As online shopping continues to surge in popularity, multichannel retailers are coming up with new and innovative ways to attract consumers into stores – particularly their flagships. Bricks-and-mortar retailing is no longer just about stacking and selling product – to catch shoppers’ attention retailers are seeking ways to entertain and offer services, to create an experience their customers cannot find elsewhere

From interactive product demos, state-of-the-art digital displays and in-store services such as beauty treatments, personal shoppers or a concierge service, retailers are seeking ways to elevate their stores into a destination for experiences. This presents challenges and opportunities for those who design them.

“With the influence of online, our clients in the fashion and footwear space are recognising the need to ensure their stores communicate their brand story,” says Irene Maguire, director at design firm Caulder Moore. “There is increasing homogeneity on the high street – many stores feel as if they are adopting a similar aesthetic. Design is being employed to show differentiation.”

To do this, designers must understand the retailer’s target market and work out how to integrate modern design elements that improve the customer journey without compromising the brand’s identity. “In short, it’s about knowing how much to add, without losing something critical in the process,” says Simon Campbell, managing director of fit-out specialist Portview.

It is not just a case of integrating technology, adds Campbell: “If you completely remove the human element, you run the risk of diluting the emotional aspect of shopping that has been the crux of so many fashion retailers’ success. That’s why physical stores that offer expert, personalised advice and service will always be in high demand. They offer a more authentic level of attention and service that consumers need, which is all part of the experiential mix.”

Jeff Kindleysides, founder of design agency Checkland Kindleysides, agrees: “The challenges are to create spaces that are malleable and adaptable, but at the same time practical and commercially viable. We live in an information rich world where we have access to most things online and on demand. Designers, architects and retailers need to recognise more the power of human interaction, empathy and connection.”

He points out that this creates opportunities to create retail and brand spaces that are environments in which to “socialise, connect and learn, as well as shop”.

Although online shopping continues to grow in popularity, stores are still the channel of choice for fashion and footwear consumers, a recent study by Drapers shows. Given the growing emphasis on experiential retail, there is therefore a lot of pressure on designers to come up with creative and cost-effective new ideas. If they get it right, the opportunities are endless: they can enable retailers to offer a more immersive, connected experience, which removes barriers to purchase and creates a more memorable brand experience.

Here, we look at two examples of how retailers are ramping up the experience for consumers.

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Harvey Nichols

Harvey Nichols, Knightsbridge

For luxury retailers like Harvey Nichols, it is well worth the investment to create an in-store environment that keeps its customers coming back.

“With the growth of online it is more important than ever to create stores that are inspiring and engaging,” says group stores and trading director Paul Finucane. “We want our customers coming to us and staying for the whole day, enjoying a shopping experience with our style advisers, visiting the beauty lounge and enjoying the latest beauty treatment, and then meeting friends for a drink or dinner in the evening.”

Harvey Nichols unveiled a new design concept in its store in the Mailbox, Birmingham, in 2015, which is now being rolled out to its Knightsbridge flagship. It includes a lot of flexible spaces where fixtures can be moved to make space for events and brand pop-ups. “We are redefining what the luxury experience is, providing customers with experiential events and innovative services across all areas of the business,” explains Finucane.

The ground floor in Knightsbridge is now home to a beauty lounge, which offers standard services, from blow dries to manicures, as well as high-tech treatments such as LED light therapy. It also offers immersive customer experiences, showcasing the latest beauty innovations and hosting masterclasses with experts.

Meanwhile, in the newly renovated 28,000 sq ft menswear department on the two lower ground floors, a new design concept called Project 109, which moves away from the traditional shop-in-shop format and instead features a collection of immersive pop-ups. Currently, Japanese contemporary fashion chain and label Beams is presenting Tokyojin, an exploration into the modern Tokyo man through an edit of Japanese fashion, accessories and homeware.

“For Harvey Nichols, innovation always come back to how customers interact with the store,” says Simon Campbell, managing director of Portview, which worked on the fit-out for both the Birmingham and Knightsbridge stores. “The idea is to offer customers a destination where they can enjoy an entire day of shopping and indulge in the impeccable services on offer.

“It’s this experiential aspect to the store that is now a focus for Harvey Nichols when it comes to bricks and mortar as it looks to produce engaging experiences for those people that want to enjoy a retail experience like no other.”

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Sweaty Betty

Sweaty Betty, Carnaby Street

High street brands are also investing in experiential store design. The Carnaby Street Sweaty Betty store is on a different scale to the rest of the brand’s bricks-and-mortar offer portfolio, spanning 3,000 sq ft, compared with its usual average of 800 sq ft. Caulder Moore was briefed to design a store filled with fashion, food, fitness and beauty, where customers could do a workout, grab a smoothie, shop and get a beauty treatment.

“These are the things that our customer obsess about daily, and so do we,” says Sweaty Betty chief executive Simon Hill-Norton.

“Our brand began as a store in Notting Hill, so the retail experience has always been really important to us. But we have always been an experiential brand as well with yoga classes in store and local running clubs since 1998. No 1 Carnaby [Street] is a destination as much as it is a shop. It allows us to create genuine relationships with our customers, which will keep them coming back.”

“Sweaty Betty has a powerful brand story to communicate,” adds Irene Maguire, director at Caulder Moore. “By creating a store concept that integrate studio, food, beauty and lifestyle as well as product, customers gain an insight into the Sweaty Betty brand world and culture. This helps to set it apart in an increasingly competitive athleisure space, where the major sports brands are increasingly targeting the female customer.”

The brand’s personality is brought to life with Instagrammable touches such as a hanging chair, beautiful plants, neon and graphic illustrations. The lockers in the studio are all named after inspirational women, with a famous quote from each of them hand-painted inside the locker door.

“We have been dreaming up this concept for years, as we wanted to create the ultimate space in which to experience the Sweaty Betty lifestyle,” says Hill-Norton. “We will be keeping a close eye on 1 Carnaby Street to see what lessons we can learn.”


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