“You can’t gift wrap a download”, observes Kim Bayley, the CEO of the Entertainment Retailers Association in a report her organisation published this month on how physical stores are ‘fighting back’ against digital retail. According to the ‘astonishing’ numbers in the ERA’s Yearbook, the number of ‘bricks and mortar’ stores selling music, video and games has more than doubled since 2009.
The entertainment industry is not alone in finding they’re in the middle of a surprising change. It’s been 4 months since Amazon opened their first physical store – and it’s been such a success that they’re preparing to open a second site. Meantime, music lovers are quick to point to the steady rise in vinyl sales over the last 20 years, driven not by legions of nostalgic dads but by a millennial audience. Printed magazines are flourishing, with 190 new titles launched in the USA and Canada alone last year. Online retailer brands are busy graduating from their digital cradles to physical maturity. In 2014 beauty brand Birchbox launched its first physical store in NYC, and Singaporean online retailer Zalora has opened several pop-up stores in its home city.
Is this the inevitable swing of the pendulum away from digital to low tech? Is this evidence of a thirst for authenticity, for humanity and simple space?
‘Yes, but…’ is the answer. It’s true that we have digital fatigue. Even digital natives feel over-connected. Though it’s not just that we’re bored of digital living, it’s that we’re not designed to endure it. Our frontal cortex can’t cope with more than 150 ‘meaningful’ relationships at any one time, whilst multi-tasking technically makes us more stupid. Our lives are increasingly intangible, so we seek out experiences that are antithetical. Correcting the balance isn’t just a hipster trend, it’s a survival tactic.
For that reason, when we scan through hundreds of emails every day, receiving a letter or a book in the post has disproportionate cut-through. A physical photo is the perfect antidote to the visual diarrhoea of our social media feeds, which is why Polaroid has launched ‘instant digital cameras’ that spit out printed colour photos. Meanwhile ‘artisanal pencils’ (I kid you not) were the ‘breakthrough app’ at SXSW this year.
Perhaps these needs are all hardwired into our humanity, but that doesn’t mean we’re rejecting the digital revolution in its entirety. Nobody really wants to go back to the days when we had to wait a week before seeing our holiday snaps, when we had to write letters with a pen, make mix tapes and use phone booths. But we do want some of the thoughtfulness, the physicality and the meaning that these totems of a lost world signify. We want to have our cake and eat it. We want both.
What our obsession with digital has created is a false duality between the physical world and the analogue one. For the last twenty years, we predicted the death of bricks and mortar stores, newspapers, magazines, paper books and TVCs with a mix of excitement, terror and glee. In retrospect such hysterical doom-mongering seems a little simplistic, and even a little old-fashioned.
To state the obvious, digital delivers something physical can’t, just as physical gives us something we can’t find from digital. Some brands have been quick to recognise that the relationship between the two is not opposing but complementary. A closer look at the Amazon store reveals it’s not really a conventional bookstore at all – it’s constructed like a journey through the website – all the books face cover out, whilst data from amazon.com directs the categories grouped in-store. Cards with personal reviews accompany each book, providing the peer-to-peer objectivity you get with the website.
Conversely, analogue brands have adopted digital to notable effect. Printed magazines have found that cover art works particularly well in cutting through the endless jibber-jabber of social media. Remember when rugby icon Jonah Lomu died last year? Well, you might remember the Irish Examiner cover, though almost none of us have ever held a copy of it in our hands. Burberry is widely considered to be one of the most innovative brands in digital and engagement marketing, proving that even luxury houses can comfortably reconcile the exaltation of sensuality with digital agility. Icon of analogue Moleskine has become the darling of omni-channel marketing with their imaginative integration of digital into their brand narrative. The Moleskine Livescribe, a technology that allows what you draw on paper to be synchronously recorded on your tablet or smartphone, delivers both practical, logical benefits as well the emotional resonance of the brand’s backstory. “This company has never been in the business of just selling paper”, CEO Arrigo Berni recently explained, adding that “We don’t live in a digital world; we live in a physical world that has a fourth dimension’.
It’s time to put down our swords. This was never a battlefield - it was the scene of a hot date between two dimensions. The world they’re creating together is much more balanced, pleasant and interesting than either could produce alone.
Katie Ewer is strategy director at jones knowles ritchie.