Tom Philipson, Co-Founder & CEO of award-winning experience design agency YourStudio, breaks down the post-crisis reality of in-store retail into three distinct phases—and how brands can succeed in each

As we react to the day-to-day explosion of information and contemplate our new confined surroundings, every business is trying to get to grip as to what it means for them and what happens next. YourStudio are no different. 

As a business, we build physical and digital experiences that form part of retail eco-systems that require people to populate, engage and explore them. Without those human interactions, those experiences don’t exist.  

Brands have been forced to adopt new processes overnight, which in normal circumstances would have taken years to bring in. Social distancing, isolation and time to reflect are making consumers question and re-evaluate who they are and what matters to them, resulting in a shift in mindset.

With these mindset shifts, we are already seeing emerging new behaviours. We’ve started seeing communities reconnecting with their neighbourhood and discovering a newfound love of their local retailers and restaurants.

New values are forming around resilience, agility and sustainability, challenging what sits high on our values list. With lockdown measures and limited travel in place, brands are creating innovative new experiences for consumers to escape the everyday and immerse themselves in new and inventive ways from their home. 

With the future of touch and personal space in flux, we will see implications for physical spaces, designing for distance in-store, and customer safety will be the priority. 

As we move back into the physical world, brands are going to be looking for ways to retain and lead with their new digital communities that have been formed in isolation.

Taking into account these shifting mindsets, we have set about hypothesising and exploring what could be next for retail and the re-opening of our stores post-COVID-19 and beyond. We explore a new start line for retail—a new start line that is scattered with obstacles as well as future opportunities.

Phase One: First Embrace

Based on what we’ve seen from the reopening of China, the trickle back into store is slow and cautious. We can also take inspiration from the stores that have stayed open, like supermarkets and essential suppliers, as well as airlines that are still flying, like Qatar and Virgin Atlantic. All have seen the same shift in customer values and priorities, from cleanliness standards to the concerns surrounding the ease of social distancing.

As a result of these shifting values, we must consider the physical, digital and human implications for the retail experience in order to create an inviting eco-system for customers to repopulate, engage and explore.

Depicted: Pandora Heart Beat Hub — One-on-one, invite-only experience that is set up as a welcoming journey inviting customers into a content-driven, no-touch environment. Courtesy of YourStudio

Designing for Distance — A priority for the immediate future. Store layouts will need to be reviewed and new customer journeys planned out to allow for comfort, allowing people to explore the store experience and be serviced at distance. This could be imagined in various ways, from bookable one-to-one shopping, to resetting the layouts.

Storytelling ResetWindows and shopfronts are going to have to work more than ever before. The communications will need to acknowledge the journey we have all been on, thanking customers for staying away but at the same time saying, ‘It’s amazing to see you again!'

Storytelling of store cleanliness and the team's care and attention that goes into making the experience safe should be a priority to build visitor confidence. To give customers confidence to come back into store, use your social and digital channels to stream live and local from store. This helps create transparency by showcasing how customers can come back safely

This is a new beginning, and the store recalibration should signal that. 

Digital IntegrationDue to the need for a low/no-touch shopping experience, digital hands-free technology is going to need to be layered through the store. Comms will play a supportive role in explaining the technology and the new digital touch points that support the experience. 

Store Team Humanising the BrandBuilding confidence with customers through the local team will play a part in reopening stores. They’re part of the local communities and the stories they tell will be one of resolve and inspiration. Defining their part in getting people into stores will be essential to humanising the brand and staying connected with the local community. 

In-store teams will also need new tools and touch points that support a safe and supportive retail experience and that become the conduit to the digital community and online experience. 

Phase Two: Recalibrated Retail

Once we have recovered from the bumpy introduction to our new normality, we expect a moment of exploration and excitement that we are past the pandemic.

We see this as a pivotal moment in time, where the future of retail is about to be shaped and redefined. We must adapt and acknowledge new consumer values and behaviours, build resilience into our strategy and define the role of the store and how new digital habits are blended into the store experience. 

Importantly, brands must give their community a compelling reason to come to store, such as a rich, immersive experiences that tell stories of the value of the product, through to innovative and human narratives.

At the same time, we must define the purpose and function of online vs in-store retail and the different functions and experiences they can provide.

The Physical Store — Retail is moving beyond showroom-ing and becoming the living lab. They come, they test, they learn, they experience. The store becomes the place we build exclusive products and relationships, in real life, together. It will be the space you can experience your passion live, connect with your digital communities and meet the people behind the brands.

New exciting integration of tech into the store will allow for experiences to be interactive and have depth of storytelling beyond just Instagram. 

Online and Virtual Experiences — These have become the new norm, becoming more and more innovative each time as brands and agencies experiment. Nothing is an ‘IRL only’ experience any more. You can be part of in-store experiences from your sofa, with your digital community. The innovation will come from how we make these experiences sensory and truly immersive. Digital is the new window into store.

Depicted: The Virgin Experience — a modular blend of virtual and sensory experiences transporting customers to far-away dream destinations. Courtesy of YourStudio

Phase Three: Neighbourhood Connect

We need to show up where our customers are, bringing  temporary and exclusive experiences to their neighbourhoods, tailored and genuine to them. It will need to be the best expression of the brand and an experience that is going to show you care, understand them and want to support them through the challenges and adventures ahead.

We will need to create temporary experiences that support every facet of your product, rich with storytelling, that are imagined in creative, exciting and original ways with sustainability and innovation intrinsic to their construction. 

These experiences will be perfect to showcasing and promote any buildup of excess stock in a way that won’t devalue the product or brand. The temporary spaces should be immersive and embrace the fact that we are moving beyond COVID and the 2020 no-touch era.

Turn Up — There was already a thirst for physical escapism through experience; this will be amplified, so make the temporary experience immersive and generous.  

Optimistic Storytelling — The experiences should be one of creative expression and deep relationship between brand and community along with championing the amazing people behind the brand and the products.

Move Beyond the Functional LayerMove digital to become the gaming and enabling power of the experiences you provide. The digital layer will add depth to the product and product range with supporting narratives, making it worthwhile for customers to get out their phone to engage and explore. 

Give Your Team the ToolUse AI and localised data to adapt and adjust the stories you tell to be real and relevant adding a personalised, member experience to every temporary retail space. 

Summary

As we move into the next chapter of retail, we will find challenges but we will also find opportunities. Adapting and learning from the consumer, responding to how they shift over the next few months, is going to be important. We will see a period of test and learn with them to ensure we get things right—or at least learn from our mistakes by inviting them in on the journey as your brand adjusts. 

Stores will become much more effective, integrating a live innovation lab mindset to the experience to help adapt products and test communication. These will be places to immerse consumers in their passions, bringing them exclusive experiences by the brand they love.

Innovation and human connection run through everything we do at YS, and this is the time for that type of thinking. Being bold and pioneering will ensure we rise above what the world throws at us. We are looking forward to inspiring future human connections. 

Find out more about Tom's work at YourStudio