What’s the future of shopping?

Emily Gosling
Mar 16, 2016 · 5 min read

The death-knell of the high street has long been sounded, apparently, despite the best intentions of Mary Portas. It’s little surprise that these former social hubs have suffered in the wake of internet shopping, and sitting in the shadows of retail behemoths like Westfield.

But while the traditional high street may not be dead, it’s certainly changed shape. Looking at these stores, and their brothers and sisters inside shopping centres, there’s a sense that while they’re different, they’re not on the path to extinction. But to survive they have to evolve. We’re a more discerning bunch than ever: constant access to pretty much anything we want online means we’re more aware of trends, prices and celeb styles the world over.

However, shopping isn’t just about what you buy, but what you do. It’s unlikely we’ll fall out of love with IRL retail therapy, but shops are becoming less about the expenditure and more about experiences.

Here’s what the future of shopping might entail.

1. Shops that don’t sell anything

In a bid to court brand loyalty in the long term, in the short term retailers are trying out store models in which you can’t actually buy things. Which makes sense if you think that people are buying less stuff in shops: they’re going to start trying to sell you less stuff. Last month tech giant Samsung opened a new store in New York’s Meatpacking district, Samsung 837, which acts as a sort of playground where users can test products and experience them, with no visible attempts at sales. The idea, it seems, is to focus on the experiential side of things; and as such, garner the social media favours that come of such an approach.

Another way stores are starting to sell less product is in Click and Collect, where shoppers buy online and use the store space to just pick up what they purchase. According to New Look’s group creative principal Andy Turnbull, today a whopping 28% of New Look store visits are click and collect.

2. Shops will be theatres, and you’re on the stage

“Consumers are more demanding than ever: a store is a canvas for consistent changes and new messages from a brand,” says Tim Greenhalgh, chairman and chief creative officer of retail design agency Fitch. As Samsung proves, a store is becoming more about how it looks and how you act inside it than how much you buy. Retailers are becoming increasingly savvy to our collective narcissism, and using it as a tool to sell, sell, sell. A New York H&M branch launched a Runway where customers could strut about in H&M clobber and have it broadcast outside the store, on its website and on Times Square. Cue excitable Tweets and Instagrams, and as such, a hell of a lot of online excitement around the brand.

Judith Kelly, Land Securities’s project manager, says: “Consumers are expecting environments that create meaningful and memorable experiences.” The future of bricks-and-mortar shops is in their role as theatre, rather than stock room and marketplace.

3. Less products, more participation

As we’ve said, shops will become less about stocking products and more about making sure you have a good time, and in turn, tell everyone you’re having a good time. Nike has long cottoned on to this. The NikeLab stores take the idea of bespoke apparel first seen in Nike ID — where you can customise products yourself — one step further. But the real beacon of the brand’s “hey, this is about you!” ethos was shown in a New York pop-up, Nike SB’s The Garage. Opened in early 2016, the space is an indoor skatepark in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Apart from the branding, and the lockers that showcase Nike products and videos, there’s nothing here that’s about the sell. Where it’s very smart is in how you access the park: by signing up on the Garage website, you have to download every Nike Plus app. That way, even once the space has popped back down again Nike still has access to a hell of a lot of potential customers.

All this is in response to numerous studies that have shown that “millennials” — or in common parlance — the sub-35 people who brands want to buy their stuff — are more keen to spend their cash on experiences than physical stuff. So shops are responding by turning their floors into sites of learning (of sorts), where booze brands teach cocktail making, or homeware shops offering workshops. Jigsaw’s “active flagship” branch is open plan, allowing shoppers to see inside PR meetings and model castings, giving an insight into the inner workings of the fashion world. Albeit a carefully edited one. Katie Baron, senior retail editor at Stylus.com, says: “We’re living in a time of experimenting. Brands are battling ‘peak stuff’. It’s a time of evolved ‘edutainment’, where brands become enablers.”

4. Paper is OUT

Stores have long been using screens on their walls instead of paper posters and decor, but in the not-too-distant future we’ll likely see the end of paper shelf labels, too. Electronic Shelf Labelling launched in SPAR Austria stores in November 2015, and allowed the store to automatically highly promotions and offer more information about things like the country of origin for fruit and veg. Projection mapping technology is also becoming more widespread, meaning that the look of a product display or whole store can be changed digitally at the push of a button.

5. The shops are watching you as much as you’re looking at them

Not always as scary as it sounds. Mirrors are becoming much smarter, as seen in Rebecca Minkoff’s “connected” store in New York. A mirrored display wall lets shoppers change the store lighting or even order drinks; and when it’s not being interacted with it showcases video content. Other mirrors that “dress” you without the need for actually getting changed are also evolving fast.

Digital “hotspots” are appearing in shops too, meaning they can deliver tailored content like promotions and information specific to people’s buying history and even gender. Even more 1984 is Quividi technology, which has been trialled by retailers including Harrods, and scans shoppers’ faces to create some pretty terrifying insights into them, relating to gender and age demographics. The aforementioned screens everywhere can then be adjusted to relate to the people the store reckons will be shopping on a particular day or a at a particular time.

In a more fun, and marginally less dystopian operation, Madrid’s Benetton store trialled interactive exterior windows that allowed passers by to become models, in a way, displaying their bodies and movements. These were fitted out with webcams though, storing all the daft dances and pouts that shoppers would likely deem to be silly and ephemeral. Benetton’s digital signage project manager Giovanni Flore dubs today’s world the “society of spectacle,” borrowing the term from philosopher and Marxist theorist Guy Debord. He’s right, of course, and his brand and the rest are ready and waiting to capitalise on our very 21st Century narcissism.

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