Could This Be The Future of Retail?

From warehouses to meeting places. From transactions to conversations.

Image © David Shankbone. Wikimedia Commons.

Matteo Penzo of Frog and Tim Kobe of Eight Inc had an interesting conversation about the future of brand experiences at Step Conference in Dubai last month. The majority of the discussion was centred around the future of retail — especially with the unwavering growth of e-commerce disrupting traditional brick & mortar.

The big question was: Is there a role for retail in a world where consumers can find out more about the products on display with a simple Google search than from the sales rep at the store, where they can get a better price from Amazon or Souq.com than at their local superstore and where someone (not in very distant future a package passing drone or better yet an autonomous rolling robot) will deliver it conveniently to their doorstep. Coming soon I’m sure even the last hope for retail — the ability to closely look and inspect the product — will be solved through a novel VR solution.

So do we need physical locations where you go pick up goods that you already know everything about and have most likely already made the decision to buy?

No we don’t. On this I agree with Matteo.

But saying everything will go digital goes against human nature. We need spaces (real physical ones, not just Facebook Groups) where we can come together and connect with similar minded people, socialise and learn something new about the topics, things and products we are interested in and passionate about. We need real tangible connection.

This is where I’m totally on the same page with Tim.

So here’s a thought.

Malls in the US are already being converted into novel new uses — apartments, schools, hospitals and community spaces. Smaller designer brands and shops already use their workspaces as their “retail” inviting their customers to be closer to and more involved in the product creation process.

What if brands could play in role in this transformation?

What if instead of creating glorified warehouses to display their goods brands would set up spaces where their existing and potential new customers could meet, discuss and learn about the interests they share — with each other and the brand in question?

A few hypothetical examples.

Patagonia would create a outdoor-themed education center / meeting place for the outdoor community in the area where people could come to learn basic camping skills, advanced climbing techniques from pro-climbers at a climbing wall, discuss and co-create new initiatives in nature preservation in the area funded by Patagonia.

Microsoft and Apple would change their flagship stores from the brand churches they are now into learning centers, co-working spaces and startup incubators powered enabled by their latest and greatest technology. These could even act as public test labs for their partners.

Nike would expand their running clubs to gyms, yoga studios, cross-fit centres with free professional trainers and experts and Nike gear.

Subaru would transform their dealerships into experience centres where fans, prospects, families and anyone interested could come and learn how to drive more safely and economically, how to maintain their cars better to retain resell value and build networks for carpooling and ride sharing in the area.

You get the picture.

To me the only meaningful role for “retail” in the future is spaces where brands can interact and learn from their audience, their community — and vice versa. Physical manifestations of the community spaces all brands are building and nurturing online where the values and products of the brand and company come to life. Spaces where brands can add value, get immediate feedback on anything and everything they do, build stronger connections with their customers and turn them into not only fans but partners.

What I’m envisioning is Patagonias version of a Hells Angels Clubhouse. A place for a likeminded community to come together and feel as one. Feel valued. Feel like they belong.

That’s a “store” I’d like to visit and spend time in. Hell, that could even become my favourite new hangout.