Op-Ed: The Future of Retail Is Human
Author Jeff Sharpe explains why there is no one-size-fits-all formula to branding, instead providing five pillars to guide retailers in taking stock of their unique audience and building an emotive identity that resonates, both online and off
The retail world is in a turbulent time. The ease and speed of online purchasing has made it practically unnecessary to enter a physical store. Almost every retailer is struggling to make their physical locations relevant to today’s consumers. Investment in design, technologies, and research to understand new consumer behaviors is being done at an enormous rate.
The results stretch in every direction, from staff-less stores full of technology, to backdrops for social media selfies, to stores as conceptual art installations. Not one of these fully represents the future nor the ideal solution—the future of retail is human-inspired and holistically connected. People are thirsty for meaningful experiences, and consumers want a relationship with the brands they love. They want to see themselves in those brands and be part of a community.
This isn’t a new story. What is new, however, is the way brands create experiences that express their brand promise and meaningfully build an emotional relationship with their customers and broader audience. Audience, not just customers, is an important distinction. It speaks to a deeper commitment and expression of the brand—putting forward what you stand for and believe in, which connects to a greater population. This commitment connects people to the brand as it reflects their values. In turn, this builds loyalty, ambassadors and community.
Our growing societal desire for human interaction demands that we move beyond transaction to building relationships. Brands must be thoughtful and intentional about what they stand for, and honest about what they are uniquely positioned to do. From there, they must then holistically design and curate experiences to reinforce that at every touch. There are five foundational building blocks to making this happen:
Live Your Brand
Live your brand promise both internally and externally. Let your values as a brand drive the experience you bring to your staff and customers. Spend time making sure you have alignment as an organization and think holistically how your beliefs translate into meaningful experiences. Patagonia, for example, lives its brand mission every day, from stores and staff engagement to its ambassadors, experiences and environmental commitment.
Make It Matter
Your customers can shop online, which means your physical store must do a different job. The physical store can be an invitation to connect with others, browse and discover, and experience the brand in unexpected ways. Determine what matters to your customers and community and set the stage for those experiences. Shooting hoops or taking a class while testing the fit of your shoes at Nike SoHo, for example, is experiential. Give your experience purpose by putting people first.
Orchestrate Your Ecosystem
No matter if it’s a physical or digital moment, the customer experience is an opportunity to reinforce your brand. Every single touchpoint inside and outside a physical location must be intentionally designed to reinforce a consistent and congruent brand experience regardless of how, where, or when your customers interact with your brand. This may be an event, pop-up, a digital interaction or your physical store, each moment working together.
It is obvious to customers when the sections of your band are off the beat. It causes frustration, even mistrust, and most importantly, it leads to customers moving on to another brand. This orchestration requires a systemic view and unrelenting execution to create a seamless experience that moves with your brand. Outside of retail, Meow Wolf’s orchestrated experience immerses its guests into a narrative far beyond some Instagram moment with intention and focus.
Weave it Together
Digital tools will soon be the cornerstone of the retail experience. Customers expect businesses to understand them as completely as they are understood by the apps on their phone. They expect to move seamlessly across channels to complete a purchase or even try something on. Increasingly, they expect physical spaces to recognize them, adapting to their needs rather than the other way around. Embrace the relationship your customers have with their devices and let technologies weave the experience together. Apple Pay moves across desktop, phone and watch from check-out to instantly providing shipping details. Technology is the thread to create a fluid experience.
Ignite the Superpowers
Your associates are cast members that play the most important role in the theater of your brand. The new sales associate is empowered by new tools and service interactions that elevate their relationship with your customer to a place of trust, advocacy and support. Arguably, this is the most important aspect to creating a deep brand connection—human to human. This creates the magic behind your brand experience.
Our collaboration with Disney empowered their cast to bring delight and excitement to visitors with integrated systems that anticipated their needs, movements and wishes. Imagine understanding your customer’s driving habits and mobility needs and anticipating their next choice, or being at the right spot at the right moment for that little girl’s birthday. The magic that makes a brand.
These building blocks are the foundation to create your brand’s unique experience. There are many brands pushing exciting ground—Gentle Monster, Amazon, Lululemon and Starbucks are just a few, but their approaches are good for who they are. They are not formulas to copy but instead invitations to learn from. It is critical that each brand invest in discovering their unique experience for their customers and staff, and from there, holistically and intentionally design each touchpoint to create purposeful and emotive experiences that put people at the center.
Good design, retail or otherwise, is a response to a human need and should ultimately elevate and improve the human experience. Success in retail going forward is not about a single design element or some trend, but about a systematic approach to the entire customer journey and unlocking how a brand can respond and anticipate its customers' needs and aspirations. Good design meets the customer where they are and creates an emotional connection that brings delight, ease and trust. In return, that builds loyalty and increases engagement. At frog, we have been helping our clients move from transaction to relationships.
Lead image: Blake Wisz/Unsplash