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Inside CornerShop at The Drum Labs, a retail experience designed for the ‘new normal’

We head to The Drum Labs in London for a peek at CornerShop, the new live testing environment for brands, retailers and shoppers.

“This will be one of the first stores in the entire world that’s been built with a full understanding of the impact of the pandemic on customer behavior.”

That’s how Rob Hollands, managing director at connected experience specialist SharpEnd, sums up CornerShop – the experimental new retail space his company has been developing alongside The Drum and Capgemini Invent on London’s Curtain Road.

Hollands is pulling back the curtain on the project to give attendees of retail show NRF 2021 a glimpse of what’s in store. He is joined (at a safe distance) by Capgemini Invent’s vice-president of retail customer experience, Steve Hewett, and Gordon Young, the editor-in-chief of The Drum and founder of The Drum Labs, which houses CornerShop and which he describes as a live space “to help readers understand the new normal and understand how the digital world will increasingly impact the physical world”.

The hyper-personalized concept explores the fundamentals of shopping in a post-pandemic world and is being developed to drive a more meaningful and relevant experience for customers.

On entering, they will first tap their mobiles on an NFC tag and undergo a quick onboarding process, with their devices then acting as a remote control to the store. They can go on to enjoy custom environment settings, ‘purposeful’ shelves, visible data insights live in-store, a future of coffee concept, and a fashion pop-up complete with connected rail and virtual try-on mirror.

The store can function entirely touchless, Hewett explains, as it has been designed and built through multiple lockdowns during which the team has had to weigh-up which changes in behavior are here to stay. Their prediction is, however, that in the long term there will be a preference for a hybrid experience regardless, which is why you’ll find giant touchscreens throughout.

“We still wanted a tactile, physical connection, and we didn’t want to move entirely away from touch,” he says. “We wanted to be able to dial the physical connection up and down as needed. So we’ve used proximity technology so you can engage with the screens through the touch of your phone. So the core idea of the space is that your phone is your remote control, and most of the interaction happens there, but this is still a place for touch.”

One thing that will always be contactless, however, is checkout. “Our technologies will know what you’ve added to your basket and check you out automatically,” Hewett tells us.

“And while there’s this great fear that automation will come at the displacement of thousands of frontline retail staff, we don’t see it like that. Automation takes away the more functional roles that occupy too much of their time today – checking if stock is available, etc. At the same time, the tech enables staff interaction with consumers by providing them with background info on their loyal customers so they can immediately greet them and understand their needs and preferences straight away. We’re empowering colleagues to deliver better experiences, and taking away the more mundane tasks.”

Hollands says this has been achieved by “taking all the staff out, automating as much as possible, and then layering the staff back in so they can deliver the right experience”. This means the humans can then focus on what they do best – “the social and experience aspects”.

And it is very much about the experience. “The days of retailers just selling products are numbered,” says Hewett. Shopping, he believes, is about so much more. “So we’re dialing up the social aspect, connecting with people and learning. Shops will always have a place to sell things, to enable local fulfillment, but that’s the minority of the role. The role will increasingly major on entertainment and experience.”

Young also says experience is the operative word. “Brands are looking for new and exciting ways to offer experiences to consumers, in online or offline spaces. Retail plays a fundamental part in that, so consumers can be engaged and see brands in various dimensions. The distinction between online and offline is no longer valid.” Instead, he says, your CornerShop experience can start at home, continue on the street as you join a virtual queue, and then when you come in this intelligent store will know all about it.

Underpinning the CornerShop experience is data-driven commerce, and the single customer view is central to this, says Hewett.

“There are lots of rich interactions being captured here, from the products people QR scan to the aisles they virtually scroll through. This isn’t just the next format for the retail store. The ambition is more about various combinations of concepts coming together in different ways to create future experiences.”

There are, say CornerShop’s three leads, some great partners already involved in the project, but there’s definitely space for more to join. “Lots of retailers have lab spaces locked away in their buildings, but this is a live lab space,” Hewett tells us.

“If you’ve got proof of concept, if you have ideas you’d like to see realized in the real world, this is a brilliant test space to get real insights, learnings and data. If there are concepts you want to bring to life through hackathons with us, we can support that too. There are also lots of opportunities to partner with The Drum to source some of that great ideation.”

Throughout The Drum Labs there will be many more opportunities to get involved. “We’re looking at the future of retail here, but we’ll also be looking at the future of work, of the home, of entertainment and much more,” explains Young. “And while we’ll walk before we run, we would love to open versions of The Drum Labs in lots of locations. For now though the main thing for is to run experiments here in London then operate them globally. So it’s London for now, but we’re hoping to start a global conversation and we’d love you to get in touch about broader opportunities.”

And, he adds, “if you do get involved, The Drum would love to tell your story as well”.

Keep updated on everything happening at The Drum Labs and Corner Shop here.