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Bouncing back: Blend Space for the next normal in retail

by Buck Sleeper

April 21, 2021

The future of retail is Blend Space. It’s the solution for our uncertain industry. It’s a set of tools and an attitude that understands that digital and physical shopping experiences don’t need to merely overlap but harmonize. It’s about importing the mindset of a service designer into the digital world or, if you prefer, exporting the digital designer mindset into the service world. Blend Space looks to knock down the weak wall between the two.

Brick-and-mortar retail was challenged before the pandemic; and for many, it’s anybody's guess how it will evolve. Brands are wondering, and worrying, about what digital and physical experience, that hybrid shopping experience, should be. Blend Space is a way of saying: Let's step back and ask the questions about why people shop in the first place, so we have a good understanding about why people need things and why people buy things. It provides the foundation upon which we design our operating models.

How is Blend Space different from omnichannel retail?

Well, omnichannel began in a similar spirit to Blend Space. It considered the different ways people could engage with a brand to figure out how to serve them. But more recently omnichannel has come to simply mean all of the digital channels, as opposed to all the ways one can shop. Blend Space suggests a more holistic approach. It’s a reset.

In service design we have numerous levels we can push—light, temperature, color, sound, texture—to meet people where they are, or, if necessary, to create a completely defamiliarizing experience. Blend Space wants to take some of those methodologies and pull them into the digital realm. Humans are imperfect computers. Our memories are bad, at best, and we have an elegant but single stream means of processing information. Bringing the power of digital into this situation can augment our processing power and bring the best of both worlds together.

Blending at scale, with the help of data

We're now looking how Blend Space operates at small and medium scales. We're seeing, for instance, a huge rise in lockers popping up in the entries of stores. Amazon lockers are showing up at bus stops. Retailers are thinking of new ways to think about distribution channels. On the other hand, we want to look upwards and ask how we can scale these into larger distribution centers for larger-format retailers, your Best Buy or your Targets.

And as we think about scale, we think inevitably about data. We’re looking to create an experience based on consumer behaviors as a means of augmenting your own experience. This is kind of an old idea that's just getting possible now with greater prevalence of sensors and screens. You walk into a space and are given information in the way that you want. Some people want to hear stories about how, say, a new camera used; other people just want to see the technical specifications. This is what we've been talking about with dynamic legibility, in our digital menus piece.

The kind of personalization we have in mind suggests Amazon’s Made for You custom t-shirt offering, which allows you to create and receive clothing that’s ideally tailored to your body. So you could have that at-home measurement experience. Might be better, for some people—rather than stripping down to almost nothing in a changing room surrounded by strangers.

Start with the store and ask the essential questions

The place for Blend Space to focus is on the physical store itself. We need to look at things from the facilities point of view. To understand the way space, the way product, is going to be part of a store’s layout. In the future, every retail outlet is going to be in some way a distribution center. People will have to drop things off and delivery trucks will need easy access to the store. This will change the way stores are designed and operated. In addition, retailers will also be looking at new ways to run the back of the house, so that they have seamless real-time data informing them.

So maybe now you’re saying: “Okay: Blend Space. Where do we start?”

Well, the Blend Space journey begins with asking: “Why do people shop?” and “How do they shop?” We’ve found that shopping behavior falls into four different mods: Collect, Seek, Comfort, and Connect—all of which are explained in our report on shopping behaviors. The important thing with Blend Space is that it will help you understand and anticipate the various shopping modes and create the sort of experience that will make them available to your customers as they need them. You should also look at the various channels customers use to understand how they get there—and why they stay. Or leave.

No time like the present to shape the future of retail

Right now, we’re all the middle of a big experiment, whether we’re trying out curbside pickup or working from home or working in person with masks and social distancing.

This is a great time to try novel approaches in retail. Customers are willing to try something new—the pandemic forced all of us into new sorts of behavior—or they're in the mood to try something else. Neither physical space nor e-commerce is going away– people will continue to shop in both of these channels. Some people are looking for new online experiences. Some seek offline novelty. All bets are off about how this will ultimately evolve—but the opportunity for retailers to shape it, to guide this evolution, is there.

By Buck Sleeper, director of retail and restaurants, and Ken Gordon, principal communication specialist at EPAM Systems