Free the birds

Branding, Retail

How to Make Retail Concept Stores More Than Just Instagram Fodder

Yes, a lot of legacy retailers had a tough time in the 2010s. But the headlines don’t reflect the reality of the UK retail market, where 82% of purchasing still happens in physical stores, according to the Office of National Statistics.

Having said that, the current climate is certainly separating the wheat from the chaff. Bad retailers – the ones that expect shoppers to be enticed by their static, soulless boxes offering little but product stacked on outdated displays can’t cut the mustard in a fast-paced, image-conscious and digitally dynamic world. Physical retail still delivers value, a report from the International Council of Shopping Centers, The Halo Effect: How Bricks Impact Clicks, found that opening a new physical store in a market results in an average 37% increase in overall traffic to the retailer’s website, compared to before the shop’s opening.

But to really deliver on that value, stores need to be offering something truly worth getting off the couch for. According to the youth researchers Cassandra 60% of Gen Z consumers favour a novel product over an experience, but 77% of millennials experience over product.

Enter concept stores and pop-ups which – done well – elevate shopping into an experience itself, transforming a functional task, buying something, into something that leaves customers delighted, stimulated or enriched. Think brand installations, chill-out spaces, workshops, classes, cafés, and phygital hybrids.

But it’s not just about Instagram posts and stories or getting a flurry of hashtags on social, Without genuine ongoing engagement and conversion, it’s just a gimmick and a waste of budget. It’s should be about integrating the consumer journey into an omnichannel offer, not fighting against online sales. According to the market intelligence company, IDC, customers who shop with a brand both online and in-store have a 30% higher lifetime value than those who shop in just one channel.

SKII Future X smart store.

Principle one: offer authentic value

For concept stores to really deliver and be sustainable over time and worth a brand’s investment there are some principles to follow. The first and foremost is authentic value. The brand has to know what it’s actually about and then authentically express it in the concept and activation.

One of my favourite examples is from SKII, the high-science cosmetics brand, which has opened Smart Stores in Tokyo, Singapore and Shanghai. They use state-of-the-art facial recognition, AI, smart walls/mirrors and person-activated displays to guide customers through a personalised skincare analysis right through to purchase, all done digitally with just hand and face gestures. And all shareable on social. On exiting the store visitors can custom print their name or monogram on an introductory bottle of Facial Treatment Essence, SK-II’s hero product. A perfect combination of the physical and digital.

Lush Naked store.

Principle two: forget about one-size-fits-all solutions

Lush’s approach is also a great example of the second principle: relevance.

Lush has its packaging-free Naked stores, but now also the new Fresh store in Paris and a perfume store in Florence. All of them true to Lush’s brand purpose of delivering fragrant, fresh, eco-friendly beauty and letting people engage with it by mixing their own fresh products, learning about fragrance making, for example.

But every city, every geography, has its own unique consumer profile and understanding it is vital. London is a very different city to Leeds is different to Liverpool again. Lush chose Paris for its Fresh store because of the Parisian habit of buying food and flowers on a daily basis.

Don’t think that what worked in Brooklyn is going to work in Beijing – make sure you take on-the-ground intelligence into account rather than imposing a top-down vision.


Chanel Atelier Beauté

Principle three: give customers a reason to come back

Freshness is the biggest challenge of all. Not only do brands need people to visit once, but they also need people to revisit. This means constantly rethinking the space and the product offer. Investing in a big wow art-style exhibit is fine for a pop-up, but to work as a meaningful retail space it needs to be more physical and conceptually flexible and enable purchase on an ongoing basis.

One example that achieves this brilliantly is Manhattan’s Chanel Atelier Beauté workshop. Rather than a stuffy designer store, the Atelier positively and generously invites people to play with makeup and skincare, with zero pressure to buy. As a result, I tried products I’d never tried before, purchased more than I expected and returned a few months later to do it all again, discover the Atelier’s new limited editions and exclusives, and get my refills. And I would actively go again when back in NYC. It meets the three principles perfectly.

So, does every retailer need a concept store? Of course not – but more marketers in the industry should consider their power and the brand love they can engender in the long term by giving customers unforgettable experiences in the real world.

Sara Jones.