Soothsayers have long been predicting a sea change in retail design, one that would happen when multichannel retailing finally took a proper hold of mainstream consumer consciousness. But, like many elements of the digital economy, the tide may have changed our lives without any of us really noticing.
It is only when the alterations are totted up, when we look back at what has changed with hindsight, that the scale of the differences between the present and, say, five years ago, becomes apparent. It looks as though reduced technology costs, growing consumer acceptance and increased client spending have combined to form a perfect storm.
Many stores, in sectors from homewares to DIY to electrics, now have a distinct space in-store for shoppers to collect products they bought earlier online. Customers perceive huge practicality and convenience in buying large, or even small, products in advance and arranging collection for when it suits them – rather than being asked to sit at home from 8am until noon for a delivery. Paradoxically, the same shoppers might be expecting their weekly grocery delivery to be brought round to them just before they watch Coronation Street.
These customers see the companies they buy from as being single, consistently branded entities, rather than the loose alliance of warehouses, logistics companies, third-party Web hosts and out-oftown retail sheds they really are. Retail design is now often, in a very basic sense, making a physical manifestation of a virtual reality.
Consistent signage, colour and wayfinding techniques across all points of contact with a brand, whether it be in a store, online or in print, are essential to the process. But these are nothing new. The lessons of half a century of retail design have ensured a smooth transition to a new way of doing business. And despite economic dire straits, clients have been willing to spend heavily to make sure change happens.
’There is a feeling that, whichever way you look at it, retailer spending is up,’ says Richard Ash, managing director of consultancy Green Room Retail. ’If you come from the “double dip” school of economic forecasting, you see retailers wanting to invest in their brands so they are in a strong position in a bad market. If you think we are moving out of recession, then it’s time to invest in stores ready for increased spending.’ Like consumers, retailers are embracing change with gusto.
Our acceptance of this new type of shopping has released retailers from the shackles of limited space. This, surely, will be one of the lasting legacies of the digital economy. The Tesco Extra catalogue (for online order and collection in-store) has an Argos-rivalling selection of products, from home furniture to ride-on lawnmowers and equestrian accessories – all from a retailer we still see as primarily a grocer.
Twenty years ago, comedians would develop routines from the novel products being sold at petrol forecourts: the idea of buying charcoal while filling up the car was entertaining. But the laughing has stopped. Now, nobody blinks at unfamiliar products popping up in new places. Mobile communications products and services seem to be for sale almost everywhere. The rash of phone stores that broke out in the 1990s has begun to clear up, but it has been replaced by in-store concessions everywhere from HMV to Tesco. We take it for granted that we can pick up an iPhone or a broadband TV package where we buy our bread and milk – but the place we buy our bread and milk has changed, too.
Increased reliance on supermarkets, and their convenience store offshoots, spells danger for the traditional corner shop. New competition, restrictions on tobacco vending and the threat of new limits on alcohol sales could see the family-owned store become an endangered species. But reports from consultancies hint strongly that a new generation of independent start-ups – think tempting deli rather than functional newsagent – could be just around the corner.
These parvenus share the fluid approach to the use of space that is beginning to define larger retailers too, and that places demands on the most old-fashioned facet of a retailer. A wide and constantly changing field of products, which grow ever-more complicated – be they foodstuffs with a deep provenance or hi-tech iPads – means that expertise, with a personal touch, becomes an essential element of any retail interior. As a result, and as technology gets more clever, retailers and brand owners are spending more than ever on training their staff.
Retail interiors are changing rapidly, to offer wider choice and faster change, and to give shoppers a more personalised experience than ever before. But as we treat shopping more as a recreational pursuit, so we demand far more of the people working in shops. The retail environment is an essential element of a store’s offer, but it is the staff working there who could be holding the key to success.