#RetailTrends2020: In-store experience

One of the things about being a bit of a retail geek is that it can be great fun earwigging other retail geeks. On Tuesday I got a great chance to do just that as a participant in Essential Retail’s special webinar discussing upcoming retail trends in 2020. If you have a few minutes to watch I can heartily recommend you do, and not just because I got to throw in my tuppence worth.

Essential Retail’s editor, Caroline Baldwin, used the webinar to run a couple of polls amongst participants. The first of these asked what retailers should prioritise in 2020. The options included future tech, like AR and VR, tightening up the supply chain, eCommerce and increasing product range and availability (I think I’d have probably added ‘survival’ as another priority), but the winner, getting 75% of the votes, was ‘in-store experience’.

Now, as someone who has been banging the drum for retail theatre both in my Essential Retail column, and frankly to anyone who cares to listen, this was music to my ears. So too were the thoughts of fellow webinar contributor Darren Williams, founder of DW Exec.

Williams pointed to a couple of retailers who’ve been doing things right and to a couple that haven’t. One that won plaudits from him was Starbucks Roastery. Starbuck’s opened its first roastery on Capitol Hill in its home town of Seattle back in December 2014.

It is a temple to coffee. There are people to tell you everything you could want to know about the stuff. You can watch the roasting process. You can enjoy ‘flights’ of different coffees that allow you to compare several different varieties. There’s even a branch of the Italian bakery Princi should you fancy pizza and a slice of cake. 

His other example was Selfridges, the iconic department store on London’s Oxford Street – one of my retail icons. The second Essential Retail poll of the webinar asked which sector of retail would look most different come 2029, and ‘department stores’ was the top answer (46%) ahead of grocers (38%) That’s hardly surprising when you consider how much department stores are struggling. Selfridges, however, is bucking that trend. It’s recognised what many others haven’t, which is that department stores have traditionally been as much about being a destination as places where you can find everything under one roof. These days, when everything can be found on the internet, that sense of a store being a destination in its own right is even more critical.

Selfridges is a great example of how to do this. Not only has it recently opened a boutique specialising in used designer clothes and accessories, run by the Vesitaire Collective, but it’s also just opened a three-screen boutique cinema; it is literally bringing theatre into retail. I’m sure it’ll only add to the sense that Selfridges is as relevant as ever and somewhere you have to shop when in London.

I won’t name the retailers that Williams thought didn’t do so well, but they’re both large-format stores, and both suffer from feeling quite dated. Neither are very easy to navigate. Nor are there enough staff to help if you can’t find something. In short, many shoppers doubtless feel ‘it would be easier online’. That’s not good customer experience.

Come January I expect we’ll see a few retailers go to the wall. The holiday period is very often make or break. But that’s retail. Though people point to Amazon as the harbinger of a retail apocalypse I’d argue it’s not, merely a harbinger of change, change that’s reinvigorating retail. Retail never stands still. It’s a constant Darwinian struggle in which only the fittest survive. Bad retailers fall by the wayside, it’s that simple. So when Williams mentioned that one store manager in a struggling retailer told him that “change comes slowly here”, my reply would have been: “actually change happens here as fast as everywhere else, it’s your response that’s slow and that’s why you’re struggling.”

Now, more than ever, there’s precious little room for retailers who can’t move with the times. The casualty roll come the New Year will only serve to underscore that. However, store closures do open up room for exciting new entrants into the retail market. They may be online retailers opening stores, exciting new specialist retailers or pop-up stores where you blink and they’ve changed again. A great storm may fell trees but new saplings always spring up where the old oaks stood.

What’s Hot on Essential Retail?