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09 May

Dispatch from China: The Future of Brick-and-Mortar Retail is Experiential


Retail just isn’t what it used to be. The Apple Store is no longer just a store, but is branded a “town center” where shoppers can pick up skills, and Amazon Go stores are revolutionizing retail by offering close integration with its website’s digital features. And it’s not just the future-focused tech brands that are reinventing retail; even the most stalwart retailers like Macy’s are poised to put their fun spin on the old formula, as seen in its new store-within-a-store, “Story.”

The thread that connects each of these developments is the effort to provide consumers with an experience as they shop. But while this discussion is still largely an abstract one in the west, the transformation from storefront to product showroom is already complete in eastern markets like China. “Going in-store gives customers the opportunity to see and interact with the brand’s products, but the purchasing is still usually done online here,” says Thomas Dohm, a Sr. Producer at MediaMonks based in Singapore.

The retailers Dohm is talking about have adapted to customer’s online shopping behaviors rather than try to fight against them. And this is a smart approach, because digital touchpoints and brick-and-mortar retail have a symbiotic effect on one another: in its “The Art And Science Of Retail eCommerce” report, Forrester Research estimates that “digital touchpoints impacted 51% of the $3.7 trillion total US retail market in 2018,” though only 14% of the US retail purchases occurred online, according to the same report.

These findings suggest that digital touchpoints play a significant role in offline purchasing decisions as well as online ones, which provides brick-and-mortar retailers an opportunity to better utilize digital (through which consumers often initiate product research) to support their business. In-store installations provide a unique way for brands to marry their digital strategies with in-store visits. Using two examples of in-store installations hailing from the east, we’re diving into what makes an effective, compelling experience that gets feet through the door.

Plan Around the Store Environment

Retailers must plan the in-store experience around the environments that will host them. A flagship location, for example, can offer plenty of space for high-profile experiential—and it may already attract throngs of shoppers who can participate and build buzz. Digital experiential can help put general store locations on the map, but retailers must understand the variables present—such as local market differences, square footage available, flow of foot traffic and more—when seeking to translate an experience across different stores.

“Local markets have all sorts of budgets, available space in store and of course maturity in experiential activation,” says Dohm. Dohm worked on a retail experience for Calvin Klein’s 37.5 line of thermoregulating jeans, which rolled out to APAC markets and walks users through a poetic VR experience that prompts them to reflect on temperature. This experience came in several tiers depending on the space and resources available in the stores where it was installed: “We approached the Calvin Klein 37.5 activation in a way that would be modular and flexible to cater to these factors,” says Dohm.

Retailers must begin by zeroing in on the core of the experience that would fit within any store—for the Calvin Klein installation, this included the VR headset and accompanying touchscreen device—then developing tiers of experience that enhance it where possible. With the Calvin Klein activation, for example, stores with the space to spare included a tiny house installation that drew attention and provided shoppers with a partitioned space to strap on the headset. In its largest iteration, dressing room-inspired places could be used to fully immerse the shopper.

The difference between experiences doesn’t have to be drastic. For example, Nike got shoppers running to six of their Chinese stores by prompting them to launch a rocket through the power of their sprint on a treadmill. At their flagship location in Shanghai, Nike offered a multiplayer variation in which users could compete with their friends. The difference here is minimal, yet adds a remarkable competitive layer on top of the experience by making the most of the space available.

Understand Local Market Differences

If you plan on rolling your experience out to several markets, don’t treat localization as an afterthought. Good localization isn’t just a matter of translating aspects of the experience; you’ll also need a clear understanding of behaviors that are unique to the different markets that you target. As retail provides a direct touchpoint for consumers to meet and engage with your brand on an individualized level, it’s crucial that your retail experience is relevant and comprehensible to local audiences.

This can be as innocuous as a registration form. The Calvin Klein 37.5 activation, which rolled out to four APAC markets, prompted users to provide contact details. For stores in China, it made sense to enable signups through WeChat—the reigning messaging app in China that many shoppers use as an e-wallet. For markets where WeChat is less common for retail and commerce, registration via email was the default channel. Brands should likewise identify the channels that are most popular or engaging for shoppers to understand the best way to tie the in-store experience back to an overall digital strategy.

Planning around the nuances of a local market at early stages of the creative process also highlights opportunities for transcreation to save time. An important feature of the Calvin Klein experience is a meditative narration that focuses the user’s attention on the temperature around them, prompting them to reflect on the elements, but the poetic narration posed a challenge for offering relevance among local audiences. “The nature of the experience was intentionally very abstract,” said Dohm. “But this was not something that translated easily into Mandarin, so we transcreated the copy to make it more pragmatic.” Effective transcreation enabled the team to roll out to all markets within eight weeks.

Give Shoppers Something to Take Away

Shoppers love to share their experiences, and in-store installations should support this need for maximum effectiveness. This not only reminds users of the product your experience promotes, but can also expand its reach by driving user-generated content (UGC) through social. While the main goal in providing a digital takeaway should be to commemorate the experience, providing a suggested hashtag or offering a digital portal that collects UGC can also prompt shares.

“It’s great to give people something to remember their experience by,” says Dohm. “If it was a positive experience, they’ll hopefully share that on social media channels.” Content that best fits this purpose is that which documents the experience: a photo, video or even a gif that captures the magic of the experience in a personalized way. The Calvin Klein activation lets users walk away with a heatmap selfie—a clever way to distill the experience’s concept behind the promoted thermoregulating jeans. The Nike experience, meanwhile, provides shoppers with a video of their sprint that includes their personal record to encourage sharing via WeChat.

In essence, digital retail experiences should not only inform shoppers, but provide a sense of fun. In-store experiential that pulls this off successfully delights consumers while helping them understand the unique features or value of your products. As retailers are still adapting to an industry disrupted by digital and ecommerce in the west, brick-and-mortar retailers should act now to carve out a space and land on top.

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