These days, everyone wants an experience and in theory are willing to pay for it. So naturally retailers are anxious to tap into that, and think “experiential retail” is the way to provide something different so that a customer wants to come into a store. It goes back to the logic that if that customer can buy a product without coming into a store, why would they want to go into a store?
These days, as with everything, you need to give people a reason to look up from their phones, and to do that you’ve got to give them something entertaining, informative, or anything that can’t be provided at home. Design is obviously now a big part of that, making a store’s experience stand out using technology and other elements that just weren’t around in the past, like virtual fitting rooms, celebrity drop-ins, or events. Samsung’s new flagship store at the Eaton Centre’s north entrance is the posterchild for this strategy: celebrity chef demonstrations; photography and videography tutorials; digital design workshops; George Brown College hosting cooking class series; and Hot Docs premiering documentaries with intimate Q&As with filmmakers are just a few examples that have occurred since the location’s opening in January 2018.
Yet there is something telling about the experiential aspect of shopping when you look at how many online stores have turned around and opened a brick-and-mortar store. Clothing retailers such as Frank and Oak or Indochino were successful online and developed their businesses there, yet when they opened street-level stores their market presences increased dramatically, arguably because there is a segment that wants to touch, feel, and get advice that you can’t do online.
Retail is often considered the Petri dish for new forms of design, because it is a landscape that changes so frequently and so dramatically. Change is happening right now, no doubt, but the idea that there is a retail apocalypse coming is greatly exaggerated. The reverse migration of online retailers opening physical stores is a testament to that, as is the massive waiting list for retailers to get into malls such as Yorkdale Shopping Centre or the Eaton Centre in Toronto, where new concepts are debuted in astonishing numbers. That said, retailers can’t survive, much less thrive any longer simply by having a large number of stores selling decent-quality product at a fair price. They need to be more interesting than an iPhone.