Ahead of her appearance at this year's Shoptalk, Lionesque Group founder Melissa Gonzalez shares insights on the future of the brick-and-mortar experience in a digital world, emphasizing the importance of storytelling

While physical stores have retained importance in retail strategy, the ends that they serve have transformed. Brands can sometimes struggle, however, in determining which purposes and consumer needs to target with their physical spaces, a challenge the Lion'esque Group, composed of experiential retail strategists and architects, strives to help its clients tackle.

Also known as “the popup architects,” the group takes ecommerce-first brands to brick and mortar, as well as helps companies rethink the physical-digital world of retail in a way that makes sense for their brand and effects meaningful return on investment. Melissa spoke to PSFK about what types of customer journeys her most successful clients have enabled with physical stores, and what the future of brick and mortar looks like from here.

What trends are you noticing lately from the consumer and retailer sides within the experiential retail space?

Customers want to be entertained, educated and inspired. They don’t want a sign on a wall that says “selfie area”—they want a fully realized experience. Yes, beautiful backdrops give us a canvas for a great photo, but the more successful stores this year will be an entire experience.

Look at Camp that opened late last year on 5th Avenue. It's a highly curated retail store, filled with ‘a-ha' moments because the products are interesting and somewhat unexpected. Then there is a beautifully designed “playground” with planned activities for kids and parents, which brings the entire experience together.

Another example is when we partnered to design the Marvelous Mrs Maisel  popup last December, we spent hours upon hours on the sourcing details to ensure we were bringing 1950s authenticity to the diner experience. In just 8 days we served 11,000 sandwiches and had a waiting list of 8,000 more.

What gaps have you noticed in terms of what consumers want out of their retail experiences, or missed opportunities for retailers, that you help your clients address?

Customers want a clear point of view and that's often still a challenge, especially when brands are hyper-focused on “creating experiences.” We also take time to step back to home in on the overriding goals of the store, establishing a clear storyline and doing a ‘gut check' to ensure the experience will speak to our client's target demographic.

What do you think a physical retail experience, popup or otherwise, should ideally do in today's market and context?

The physical retail experience is often an anchor location that drives a halo effect across channels for brands and retailers. More often than not, our clients see significant increases in website traffic within the city in which they open their brick-and-mortar stores. They also unlock super-consumers—those who become true brand evangelists, shop more often and return product less.

Stores also create a destination for community. Brands that do it well are successful in tapping strategic partnerships to host in-store events in their space to amplify their reach.

How do you help clients go “phygital,” ideally navigating those dynamics between physical and digital? Can you give an example of a client you worked with to achieve this?

We are often playing the role of “an adjunct retail team” for our clients who are going from digital to physical for the first time. We dive into all aspects of launching a retail experience, including goal assessment, site selection, creative ideation and store design, sourcing, production, operational strategy, staffing and technology integration.

Some of our digital native clients opening their first store have included Madison Reed, Dormify, The RealReal and most recently Blenders Eyewear—the 800-square-foot store not only serves as a retail destination, but gives the brand a place to test product expansions. Its new flagship location has quickly become a staple that informs Blenders' branding decisions across all activations. It has become a benchmark for event design and packaging design standards.

Many DTC and digital-first brands find that physical stores help them significantly increase online conversions. Is this something you've noticed, and is this a major reason brands seek your help?

Yes. This is a consistent benefit our clients experience. For example, when The RealReal opened its San Francisco popup, it saw a 500% year-over-year increase in website traffic.

Last summer when Dormify opened its Popup Style Studios near Chicago and Washington, D.C. , it saw increased year-over-year revenue in those markets 200% to 250%, well ahead of the national revenue boost.

What do you think is next for brick-and-mortar retail, maybe 1-2 years out? What will we be seeing? More popups that go permanent, more private types of experiences?

I think we will continue to see the use per square foot to continue to evolve. Stores will be less about transactions and more about experiencing the product and brand. Dropship will become more common, mobile payments will be more widely adopted and ROI will be more focused on experience per square foot.

Some examples are what Nike is doing in its NYC House of Innovation, where it’s a truly omnichannel store: Shoppers can experience products in a very experiential way, but utilize their mobile device to reserve and pay for product.

There's also Reformation, where the items showcased on the selling floor are highly curated, but there is access to full inventory a floor below via touch screens. Similarly, digital-native Margaux is opening fit shops that allow customers to get measured for their individualized perfect fit and then products are shipped to their home.

In all cases, the physical store that we're going to see more of is about delivering an experience you cannot online, but that bridges the offline-online transaction.

Lionesque Group