The world’s retailers face a host of challenges. Even before the pandemic, many brick-and-mortar retailers were struggling. Now, as we emerge from the liminal space of nationwide lockdowns into new psychological and social territory, shoppers will be anxious about whether visiting stores will increase their exposure to the virus. Adding to the complexity: The United States is now officially in a recession, which will dampen consumer spending for months to come.
In this environment, reading “future of” pieces can feel like a trip to the World’s Fair. There are hundreds of new gadgets and designs being dreamed up to keep us safe from biological threats, mediate our hesitancy to socialize again, and further the integration of our digital and physical lives. As much as this excitement will help us in the long run, what retailers need most right now are tested solutions they can deploy immediately.
But brands need more than a checklist of sanitization practices. They need actionable vision that will set them apart and entice people people back inside their stores.
The good news is innovative ways of operating were already being prototyped on a smaller scale before Covid-19. Examining these approaches will allow retailers to use this moment of transition to pivot towards a more resilient and meaningful future.
The Store as a Stage
Walking around essential businesses today, you see many makeshift efforts to reduce contact and limit crowds — devices like tape on floors, plexiglass shields, and hastily written signs on colored printer paper. These methods are cheap and easy, but they do little to lessen fear and manage the psychological state of their customers. Retailers outside of the essential category need to think about space as a service — a performance, where “front of house” is serene, while “back of house” supports the complex maneuvers that occur on stage.
In the fall of 2019, my team designed Tupperware’s Tupp Soho pop up, a shopping experience that necessitated no touching of products, no restocking of displays, and no need for large crowds. Displays were used to showcase products, which could then be purchased by flagging a staff member, who had a tablet equipped with Square. After the purchase was complete, the staff member would collect and wrap fresh versions of the items “backstage” and bring out the finished shopping bag (a reusable tote). This experience allowed visitors to explore the pop up like a museum and to buy large products without having to carry them around. We already see similar hospitality-influenced services in luxury shopping — with technology, there’s no reason not to scale this out to other areas.
Furthermore, given that contactless shopping will be the new normal, retailers should consider looking to other industries that already offer similar services. If you can book a dinner reservation for 7:30, why can’t you book a shopping experience for 6:30 nearby? From yoga studios to therapists, a wide array of businesses are already using digital reservation systems. People will be reluctant to wait in long, socially distanced lines for casual shopping, so make the experience easy.
Digital Experiences as Collective Memory
Fewer in-person touches means digital artifacts need to embody brands in deeper, more memorable ways. Brands have an opportunity to embrace media that can communicate the experience of using their products. New capabilities in motion design allow us to capture sensory details and generate new realities. In ManvsMachine’s recent campaign for Purple, the differentiating element of the mattress — a flexible gel grid — is twisted and compressed to showcase its elasticity and comfort. More surreal, Rad Mora’s ads for Pat McGrath makeup features digitized liquid cascading down slick surfaces like a luxurious syrup. This is how you cut through the noise of perfectly posed pastel shots — by making people feel something.
These feelings can then be translated into digital shopping formats. Most online shopping experiences were built on generic templates, but with millennials and Gen-Z funneling themselves into ever-narrower aesthetic tribes, online shopping no longer has to cater to the masses. Maybe stores are only one typology in an array of ways we could interact with products. Could online shopping exist as a surreal world of discovery, like the popular 1990’s game Myst? Gucci has a track record of creating imaginative microsites that push the envelope — like their SS 2018 virtual museum. Meanwhile, Aesop’s Taxonomy of Design allows visitors to browse all the materials, colors, and textures of their stores. Even in small doses, a taste of adventure can be the secret sauce that makes one brand stand out — especially in luxury, where the power of the experience is directly correlated with brand perception.
Technology can also generate connections by making every consumer feel like they have a personal shopper who has favorite items (in their size) placed in a dressing room when they arrive or who can suggest similar pieces based prior purchases. Members at NEW INC (of which I am one), the New Museum’s incubator, are already working on augmented reality and artificial intelligence solutions that could power anything from the virtual closet Cher Horowitz uses to pick her outfits in the movie Clueless to holographic fashion shows. Machine learning tools like Noya Kohavi’s Lineage allow for better recommendations, a challenge giants like Amazon have not been able to crack. Yes, data privacy is a top concern, and brands that are highly transparent about how they use data will be more trusted. The longer retailers wait to integrate these types of features into their design flow, the more opportunities they will miss.
Physical Spaces as an Escape
We are in a moment of tension — people yearn to explore, yet they fear exploration will bring exposure. The biggest room for innovation lies in experiential escapes. For many, these terms bring up associations of VR headsets, dizzying screens, and loud spaces that scream “more is more.” More restrained and effective expressions can be found in fashion brands like Acne, Celine, and Gentle Monster, where the store serves as an artistic escape into their brand ethos. Imaginative installations, rich materials, and a uniting storyline allow the space to speak for itself — the physical details, which go beyond a one-dimensional Instagram backdrop, embody the same feelings you associate with the brand.
For example, Gentle Monster, a sunglasses brand known for their otherworldly store installations, creates a theme around every store that is expressed through unusual sculptures. Their Los Angeles store’s “harvest” theme features straw piles and artfully placed rods, creating an atmosphere closer to an art gallery than a sunglass store. Meanwhile, Acne’s store in Shibuya feels more like a cross between a designer’s living room and a museum — full of rich carpets and glass display cases.
As we reevaluate spaces, texture, light, sound, and smell should take center stage. Many of our strongest memories of places are not visual, but embodied: the cool temperature of the walls, the way sound echoed through the space, the smoothness of carpet under your feet.
At Naked Retail’s 11 Howard location, a concept store featuring a rotating roster of brands, my team and I (who worked on the project) were presented with a small, dark box. By suspending shelves, clothing racks, and netting from the ceiling using utility belts, we created a sense of movement upwards, which helped to make the small space feel more expansive. A variety of textures — from soft-touch foam to semi-transparent plastic to concrete — added depth.
Experiences can be both touchless and tactile. As architect Juhani Pallasmaa writes: “Vision reveals what touch already knows… Our eyes stroke distant surfaces, contours and edges, and the unconscious tactile sensation determines the agreeableness or unpleasantness of the experience.”
In anxious times, it makes sense that people would desire a calming environments that connect us with our natural surroundings. Throughout this crisis, I’ve been honored to work with Studio Elsewhere, who are building biophilic recharge rooms for frontline healthcare workers at hospitals around New York. The rooms are entirely voice activated and feature restorative interactive visuals projected on the wall, as well as immersive audio content and relaxing scents. Early studies show that 15 minutes in these recharge rooms can reduce reported stress by 60%. By incorporating biophilic principles into reopened spaces, we offer opportunities to process and release anxiety.
These ideas may all feel overwhelming as a retailer set to open its doors in the coming weeks, so it’s worth focusing on where you can have the biggest impact. If you are reopening imminently, consider what touch points could be improved to minimize contact and increase personalization. Over time you may want to consider updating your store design to feel more calming, imaginative, or distinct. If you have more time or are unsure whether a physical footprint makes sense in the near term, it may be more worthwhile to look at how your digital presence can embody what is lost by physically interacting with your space and your brand. Either way, there may be digital augmentations that can support your ongoing business and set you apart from competitors. You need not do this alone — designers, artists, and technologists are here to work with you to envision what comes next. Let us build a resilient future together.