FutureBrand says digital is essential for branded spaces

Self-scanners in supermarkets intimidate customers and represent the worst application of digital technology in retail design. But self-service check-in at airports creates a ‘win-win situation’ for customers and airlines. And ATMs that ask you if you would like ‘the usual’ should and could have happened years ago, according to FutureBrand.

Last week, the consultancy led an evening seminar on digital technology in the branded environment, for the benefit of 60 assembled brand-owners.

Tackling the threat posed to traditional retail by Internet shopping, FutureBrand argues that website design must increasingly inform and inspire interior design. It suggests that traditional retailers can learn from their rivals, creating personalised in-store brand experiences with the use of digital technology.

‘There is no time to spare – the balance is shifting towards on-line retail sales, away from bricks-and-mortar shopping,’ says FutureBrand head of branded environments, Paul Bretherton. ‘Digital technology can help to turn that around.

‘We have seen the rise of the flagship store in recent years, and there are some stunning examples of immersive brand experiences, from the high-end to the value retailers, such as the Primark store on Oxford Street. But despite having the “wow” factor, these stores are missing a dialogue between the brand and the customer.’

The rise of Internet retail sales amounted to a £46.6bn spend in the UK last year, up by 54 per cent on 2006, according to Interactive Media in Retail Group. IMRG reports that, in contrast to some high street retailers, the so-called credit crunch is not yet affecting on-line retail sales. These grew by 50 per cent in January to March, compared with the first quarter of 2007.

Traditionally, on-line retailers sold themselves to customers on the basis of cost, but a shift in design values is allowing brands such as Amazon and Ebay to make their new point of difference a highly personalised service.

‘Ebay is incredibly sophisticated in the way that it changes its page layout depending on how experienced a user you are,’ says FutureBrand head of strategy Piers Guilar. ‘Good digital is customised and personalised, uniting technology, creativity and the brand.’

Hi-tech store environments are already proliferating, as flagship stores such as Nokia’s Eight Inc-designed LCD and LED-lit emporium in London’s West End proves.

FutureBrand is currently working on a mobile phone retail concept for a Middle East telecommunications company called Zain, which is due to open in August. When Zain’s customers pick up a phone, they will automatically activate a screen which allows them to view and customise the product and service. FutureBrand is terming the integration of digital technology into retail and other branded environments ‘4D’.

‘When you visit the Nokia flagship store in London, you are impressed by how it looks, that the digital content is still quite functional. The Zain store will go further than that, delivering the personalisation to the customer experience,’ adds Bretherton.

As digital shopping assistants bring us back round to the levels of personalisation once offered by human beings, it seems that good service could be the ultimate winner.

Role swapping

• Bricks-and-mortar stores such as Nokia and O2 are increasingly incorporating digital and virtual technology
• E-commerce operators are moving into personalised service, traditionally the preserve of bricks-and-mortar retailers
• Entertainment retailer Amazon.com expresses ambitions to be ‘the earth’s most customer-centric brand’
• Ebay alters the appearance of its Web pages to match the level of experience of the user

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