News Analysis – Online brands are coming to a high street near you

This week it was announced that online retailer Amazon is to open its first physical retail store in Seattle, selling tablets and e-readers with a more ‘hands-on experience’, following moves by other online brands such as eBay into the physical realm.

This trend echoes many of the predictions made in our high-streets of the future opinion piece last May, which explored how technology and online-retail will shape, but not necessarily eclipse, off-line stores.

In December, eBay opened a Christmas pop-up store in London’s Soho, with interiors and experiential elements designed by consultancy Push UK; while last October Google opened its first physical outlet, with a pop-up Chromebook store in a London branch of Currys and PC World.

In May, Portland managing director Ibrahim Ibrahim forecasted that ‘people will seek compensatory human contact and physical experiences’ for their ‘increasingly digitised lives’.

Ibrahim feels that as people’s shopping experiences are increasingly driven by online retail, customers will seek to replicate the transient, hybrid, location-based effect that can be created through online shopping, in their offline buying.

Speaking this week to Design Week, he says, ‘When you shop online it’s less about category silos, it’s about hybridisation and cross-blurring of category lines and that’ll migrate in-store. An online brand is different from one day to the next and they’ll have to deliver that in-store as well.

‘It’ll have the identity and feel of a physical magazine with a multi-channel offer – things will be much more event-driven and about showcasing rather than just buying.’

As Ibhraim points out, the increasing fluidity between offline and online retail experiences will have huge consequences for the nature of shops themselves. He feels the old model of huge shopping centres owned by gargantuan property development companies offering long-term leases will fail due to their staticness and their increasingly obvious inability to react to customer needs compared to the fast-paced nature of online or more temporary, experiential retail.

As for the design of these space, ‘prettifying shops’, he says, will be a thing of the past, as retail is increasing moving out the shop walls, and into online, mobile and experiential platforms – making retail design as it has been a thing of the past.

‘It could be a container in a car park or a balloon on the roof’, he says. ‘The shop is liberated by the Internet, not endangered. Retailers have to deliver what the customer really wants – not just shrines to brands. It’ll be a gradual conversion from online pure players and vice versa.’

An example of this fluid seaming of online, physical and mobile retail is the Homeplus Tesco Virtual Store in Seoul, South Korea, designed by Homeplus, which is among the nominations for the Design Museum’s Designs of the Year 2012 . The virtual store, in an underground station, allows commuters to shop for food on their way home from work by scanning barcodes using a smartphone app.

Meanwhile computer brand Dell, which previously only retailed online, appointed consultancy Fitch to help move the brand into 64,000 stores around the world.

Fitch's work for Dell
Work by Fitch for Dell’s physical stores

Fitch creative director Stuart Wood says, ‘It’s a trend we’re seeing that will continue. It’s obvious but experiencing the product is where the moment of truth happens. Because of their ingenuity, online retailers have done a great job of reaching their consumers online, and I think we’ll see a big rise in retailers being innovative in the offline word.

‘It’s about trying to create a seamless journey – but it can’t be the same, as you don’t shop in the same way on mobile or a laptop as in store or online.’

Wood suggests that these ventures can capitalise on the precarious state of the high-street by creating experiential pop-ups in now-vacant stores. He says, ‘It’ll be a much more symbiotic relationship. Increasingly we’ll see the high-street become more about experience and less about transaction.

Fitch's work for Dell
An illustrated wall in a Dell store

‘Smart retailers have to work out the benefits of each of the touch-points and have to work out in a very coordinated, orchestrated way what the physical space is doing.’

Wood points to the example of a London fishmonger that tweets what fresh fish it sells each day as how even small, very ‘traditional’ retailers can harness technology to enhance their business, and he suggests that specialism will become increasingly popular.

He says, ‘Brands have to be much more nimble and agile in approaching retail environments – they have to think about multi-use and localisation – people don’t shop the same way any more.’

Philip Dolman, director of Studio DB, however, sees online retailers’ move offline as primarily a savvy way of garnering publicity.

He says, ‘It gives them a point of difference; with eBay it was more about a pop-up. That gives a certain amount of publicity and building awareness for those customers that are slightly reticent to use their services, or not aware of them.’

Dolman suggests that this ‘pop-up’ model is the way forward, with brands such a Net- A-Porter having the potential to partner with events such as Fashion Week – though he feels these event driven, temporary and location-led experiences are limited in their scope.

‘It’s very targeted to one particular place’, he says. ‘But it’s taking things to the next step where it becomes and more experiential process. It’s adding a more sophisticated layer to online retailing.’

So while Mary Portas’ Review of the High Street concluded that to survive,  the high-street must become the ‘hub of the community’ (helped, however, by a ‘virtual high street’, online forum to get people to look at their high streets), we could be increasingly seeing the ‘hub’ of online retailers moving onto the high street.

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  • Angela Turner November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Im not sure if its practical to shop this way, as its just like visiting the real store with out the real produce in front of you, is there really a point to this.

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