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Comment: Dan Whittington of Fernwood Interiors on how store design is revolutionising customer experience

You might have read the fascinating and somewhat surprising research, published recently, into millennials and their shopping habits. It showed that, despite being the generation we accept to be the most digitally connected, they still prefer the in-store experience to shopping online.

While the good old-fashioned virtues of in store shopping were uncovered as some of the reasons why high street shops still hold an attraction for young people – being able to buy ‘there and then’, and having the option to ‘try before you buy’, for example – perhaps we are doing retail designers a disservice by not acknowledging the lead role they have taken in raising the bar for in-store customer experience.

We have seen this develop in many ways over the current decade, and the following areas in particular have redrawn the ‘offline vs online’ battle lines:

NFC technology – near field communication - has opened the door to new ways to engage and stimulate customers. Innovations such as smart posters allow calls to action to be ‘actioned’ on the spot with the swipe of a smart phone; be it an instant entry into a competition, the download of an information pack, or an automatic Facebook ‘like’. Smart phones, as we all know, are the millennial’s tool of choice, and by placing NFC at the forefront of in-store design, retailers are communicating with this audience on a familiar wavelength. The facts back up the trend - over 75 per cent of consumer s who responded to a Strategy Analytics study indicated an interest in viewing additional product information via NFC.

Retail designers have also done a good job of improving consistency when it comes to cross channel branding. We now expect to see the style, tone and messaging that we remember from a website, Facebook page or television ad replicated in-store, otherwise a key component of cross channel campaigning is lost. Whereas, in the past, websites and other out of store platforms may have taken their design lead from stores, the roles have now reversed. Just take Apple stores for instance – much of the space delineation and layouts at the outlets is influenced by the computers themselves.

Snap-happy stores – from generously sized shop windows that provide the opportunity to create lively and attention grabbing displays to the ‘ringside seating’ which many restaurants now incorporate to give diners a close up view of chefs at work, many retail design facets are now being moulded towards giving consumers photo opportunities. The benefits are clear – a photo uploaded to Facebook or Instagram and shared with hundreds of friends is perhaps the most powerful form of organic PR, and designers are now charged with the task of creating spaces which allow a customer visit to become an aesthetically memorable event in itself.

So will 2017 be the year in which offline fights back? As we battle through the crowds to join the January sales rush, it might be worth remembering that the high street offers an experiential element that simply cannot be provided on the net.

Dan Whittington is Managing Director at Fernwood Interiors.