The future of retail: what happens when all the showrooms are gone?


By Jonathan Sands, Chairman

January 18, 2013 | 5 min read

For the past few years I have been in equal measures alarmed and fascinated by the phenomenon we have been witnessing in the world of retail. Shops as we know have become showrooms for consumers who, having made their choice, go online to find the best deal for their purchase.

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Consumers were happy to go to Comet to get details from tech savvy shop assistants about the latest 3D TV, and then go online to find out the best deal for that Samsung or Panasonic 50 inch and save 10 pounds here, a hundred pounds there. After all, that would pay for the Cannon camera on Amazon that the guy in Jessops also talked you into. HMV, Comet and Jessops are just the latest to fall prey to the almost relentless march of online retail and they won’t be the last.

But it was only when the most discerning consumer I know, my wife, asked me “what happens when all the showrooms have gone?” that I stopped to think about where all this might lead and in fact I think it could be all rather exciting.

Cynics might think that our high streets will end up being a somewhat depressing mix of hairdressers, coffee shops and empty units covered in promotional flyers. The narrow minded might believe that the future is simple and one dimensionally digital with the next generation shunning the high street almost completely. But I disagree.

The fundamental truth is, that as human beings we also need to ‘belong’. We crave to be part of a tribe. We don’t always order our food in when we don’t want to cook because part of the experience of eating in a restaurant is the atmosphere of being in a different space, eating at a different table and with others. If the virtual world was truly a utopian panacea then nobody would ever go and pay to watch a football game in a stadium when it can be cheaper and more convenient watching live in your own home.

And herein lies the clue to the future of traditional retail. It has to become more experiential, more atmospheric, more entertaining and offer a kind of value that you just can’t get online. And it will, it absolutely will.

Ask yourself, is Disneyland a theme park or a retailer? Does anyone come out of Disneyland having not spent money beyond their entry fee?! I think not. Could retailers charge an entry fee? If they make the experience so exciting, so compelling they can and some are starting to do just that. One example is Poble Espanyol de Montjuic in Barcelona where you pay an entrance fee for a mix of retail, education, entertainment and art.

Personal shoppers, cooking demonstrations, educational classes, beauticians and celebrity signings are already used to drive footfall. One US toy store I recently saw offered hair styling and birthday parties for your child’s doll. These are just a few examples of where retailers are starting to drive revenue from the retail experience and service as opposed to the like for like product.

Retailers now need to move from being rational purveyors of product to emotional purveyors of experience and in so doing keeping that experience fresh and new to keep consumers coming back.

This could lead to different kinds of retail relationships with different brands perhaps even co-sharing their space rather than taking a hit on retail rents when their brand is naturally out of season. If a theatre can change its space during a curtain surely a retailer can change almost overnight.

And here is just one more thought for the narrow minded... If the likes of Amazon are the nemesis of Jessops then who and what are the nemesis of Amazon? Well as 3D printers become commonplace, maybe we will just print our own products at home. You can already print many types of everyday homeware items from plastic cups to chess sets and even now a titanium bicycle. Yep, you can print a bike.

There has even been an application in the US to conduct research to print meat. Well at least you’d be sure whether or not you were eating beef or horse meat. Stranger things have happened in the 30 years I have been in this industry but one thing is certain, retailers will survive and the future promises to be more experiential and as a result very exciting.

Jonathan Sands is chairman of Elmwood a global retail brand design consultancy and has an OBE for his services to the creative industries


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