High-touch experience in retail

John Michael O'Sullivan and Adam Shilton

For all its advances and innovations, the one thing e-commerce hasn’t replicated is the core of the physical shopping experience: interacting and engaging with products in the real world. It’s not enough for a retailer to be a faceless entity behind a computer screen. Customers crave physical touch and peer-to-peer interactions, so that they can fully engage with brands. What’s clearer than ever is that technology is simply the tool. The real-world customer is still king—and how they experience the brands that they choose has never been so important.

So how do retailers optimize the customer experience on both sides of the screen? Of late, we’ve seen a whole range of digital Breakthrough Brands—from Bonobos to Away to Everlane—leveraging the halo effect of flagship brick-and-mortar stores to spur expansion and growth. Take eyewear pioneer Warby Parker, which has translated its online-only presence to a network of 20 physical stores in major cities in the past three years, with further growth projected. Or Detroit-based lifestyle brand Shinola, which has parlayed a passion for American craftsmanship into a successful international retail model—one that’s anchored by a powerful narrative, conveyed seamlessly across the brand’s website, social media channels, and real-world spaces.

Some of the retail brands on our Best Global Brands report are taking a page from these recent risers. Last November, online giant Amazon unveiled its first brick-and-mortar store in Seattle’s University Village shopping mall, with the aim of combining the best aspects of their online service with a physical experience. For now, it’s just one store. But it’s a significant strategic move for a business that perhaps, more than any other, has changed the way the world shops.

When virtual becomes a retail reality

2016 will be remembered as the year the world went wild for Pokémon GO. And it could also be the year that virtual experiences finally hit the retail mainstream. This summer, eBay partnered with Australian retailer Myer to launch what they’ve called “the world’s first virtual department store.” It offers all the conveniences of online shopping—quick browsing, easy selection, seamless checkout—within the context of a virtual store “space,” which customers can “visit” by mounting their smartphones into an affordable headset. The partnership is an exciting demonstration of how the eBay platform can be translated into a more immersive shopping experience, and of how the brand’s tried-and-trusted functionality can be leveraged to develop innovative new customer journeys.

Virtual shopping technology is still too new and too niche for any sales figures to be accurately measured, but it’s a space that’s grown significantly over the past year. When London luxury retailer Harvey Nichols launched its new menswear floors this spring, it simultaneously unveiled an e-tail experience that allowed customers to “walk” through the new spaces online, browsing and buying clickable products en route. And Orchard Mile, an online retailer launched by a group of fashion-tech experts, has broken through by challenging the tightly edited format offered by most e-commerce sites. Instead of functional categories, the site re-creates the experience of high-end street shopping (with the tagline, “Scroll down fashion’s most luxurious mile”), where customers can browse through a series of individual brand boutiques, immersing themselves in each brand’s full product range and in-depth narrative.

The in-store experience

Many traditional brick-and-mortar brands, meanwhile, are embracing the idea of the “experience store”—spaces where customers can engage directly with the brand, without necessarily shopping for the product. This strategy has been proven on a global level over many years by experience-driven brands like Disney and Nike, who harness the power of retail design to create iconic, high-impact, real-world destinations. Samsung’s spectacular Manhattan flagship, Samsung 837, is a great case in point. Billed as a cultural destination and digital playground named the Marketing Center of Excellence (COE), it immerses the customer in a dynamic, personalized, multilevel universe. At a smaller scale, new names are experimenting with retail spaces that are solely about the brand experience. Audio label Sonos has opened highly considered listening studios in Los Angeles and London that reinforce the brand’s authority in the field without resorting to traditional retail cues.

Your brand, their pocket

Whether focusing on online or physical space, the key is to connect all touchpoints, allowing for seamless interaction between person, product, and brand. Ease of access and smoothness of delivery are key in today’s omni-channel world. With approximately two billion consumers carrying smartphones, delivering a connected shopping experience is the key to creating customer loyalty. Retail brands are getting smarter about engaging the consumer through dynamic social media channels, innovative retail strategies, digital-savvy physical stores, and an array of interconnected customer experiences.

To drive growth, today’s retailers must be strategic rather than reactive. They must remain relevant to their customers, invest in understanding their desires and needs, and then work out how best to connect with them. This may mean adopting the latest technological trend—but brands will only alienate themselves from customers if they get it wrong. Take Zara, one of the apparel sector’s biggest success stories of recent times. The brand concentrates its efforts on a brick-and-mortar experience, backed up by a simple online platform. It has disrupted the high street, not through technological innovation, but by taking its strategy back to basics. This model works because they have a clear understanding of their customers and how they shop. Why break it?

As clicks and mortar collide, the brands that thrive are those that deliver fully rounded customer experiences. Retailers need to be brave, repurpose merchandising space for digital engagement, and replace conventional branding with experiential moments. They must also make sure that the in-store digital expression links to the online offer, to create a seamless narrative that feels relevant and engaging. Brand synergy is key—this unified story should be replicated in stores, online, and throughout all marketing activities. And brands should embrace the opportunity to create unforgettable, individual, remarkable experiences, in both the physical and digital realms.

Only by delivering holistic retail experiences will brands be able to fully connect, to build a loyal customer base, and to grow. We’ve seen how this thinking is integral to emerging brands like Away, Shinola, and Everlane—and how established global players like eBay, Amazon, and Samsung are breaking new ground to grow along with their customer base. It’s time to rethink the divide between online and physical retail: as the Best Global Brands in the retail sector are showing, it’s time to break out of the box.

Design Team Leader
Associate Director