Brands are turning to hybrid ‘Millennialised’ retail concepts that mix the best of digital touchpoints with physical brand statements. It’s an evolving trend gaining further traction in 2019.

From theatrical or educational spaces to progressive and experiential stores, in today’s fast-paced retail environment brands need to be agile. Those that manage to combine digital natives’ love of social-commerce and digital shopping with a physical location unavailable online, will win the race for engagement. It’s clear having a dynamic retail voice has never been more important for brands…

The Millennialisation of retail is a wake-up call for brands. Retail should no longer be about measuring sales per sq ft, but creating spaces where the metric is inspiration per sq ft. and using digital as a medium to communicate with consumers while they’re in the store. With this in mind, brands should be enabling consumers to learn about or experience products and campaigns on a deeper, physical level.

Korean eyewear brand Gentle Monster has a network of stores, mostly in Asia, and has set about revolutionising the in-store experience through immersive storytelling. At its new London outpost, the retail interior is full of otherworldly drama and tells the tale of aliens who have visited Earth, discovered Kung Fu and taken the martial arts techniques back home via moving installations and various screens that immerse the customer in the brand story. Naturally the store is popular Instagram content fodder for visitors, keen to share the brand’s alien story. 

A different approach to storytelling or crafting a compelling brand proposition, is creating environments that establish tone of voice, or brandstanding activations. Just take H&M’s new concept flagship in Hammersmith, west London. It includes a whole floor dedicated to the circularity of fashion; the signage and merchandising promotes the re-use and recycling of clothes as well as their new system of in-store online shopping and self-service checkouts. This demonstrates how consumers want to see transparency and accountability translated into tangible store elements in an authentic way that goes further than simply lip-service.

Photo credit: H&M Group

If personalisation was 2018’s biggest retail trend, then 2019 belongs to AI-recommendation. Nike and even Amazon are beta-testing algorithm-based sales ideas on consumers – and they’re game. Just as Nike is harvesting its Nike Plus local community’s preferences data to better merchandise its latest Los Angeles store, Amazon is now plugging customer bestsellers data to shape its ultimate product strategy into its first proper flagship, the 4-Star store in New York. 

With Millennialisation comes the need for technology-rich playgrounds. Workshops, talks and entertainment experiences were the three-pillar approach to Google’s latest pop-up retail venture, the month-long Curiosity Rooms in December in London. Offering a range of connected moments and digital detoxing as well as some serious edu-tainment, for its Pixel 3 device launch, the space was dedicated to encouraging visitor curiosity which was a key theme for the tech company’s latest ad campaign. This is the second time Google has created an immersive campaign pop-up and it’s a clear indication of the shift towards branded spaces being used for entertainment over retail.

Similarly focused on curiosity and learning through creative execution will be Samsung’s new permanent entertainment showroom space in Coal Drop’s Yard, Kings Cross in London when it opens in Summer 2019.  Much like its 837 site in New York, the tech giant will design the ‘store’ as a place to showcase its products as well as a number of technology-related experiences, including virtual reality tours, or augmented reality partnerships. Samsung’s strategy to dedicate prime retail space to fostering emotional connection through experimentation is a brave move and one that encourages brand loyalty among new generations of customers.

The new Tiffany & Co Style Studio in Covent Garden has a merchandise selection that is quite different to its usual luxury lifestyle offer. The floor to ceiling blue box design focuses on brand graphics, ad campaign imagery plus a personalisation bar where customers can #MakeItTiffany. Complete with a club-like music policy, this retail concept is designed to appeal to Generation Z or Millennials, who will come to experience the luxury brand and possibly access it via entry-level priced ‘aspirational jewellery’. They may also be side-tracked by an expanded array of lifestyle products such as candles, stationery and even plant pots. One clear sign of the brand’s new younger direction is the perfume vending machine, which is cashless, naturally.

Photo credit: Tiffany & Co

Or let’s consider the blueprint for Millennialised retail that cult beauty brand Glossier has brought to the industry. Now that Glossier has invested in its ‘happy place’ physical retail strategy with flagships in New York and Los Angeles, the bar is set high for understanding the power of brand experiences that create emotional commerce.  On the new New York flagship, CEO Emily Weiss told the New York Times, “we’re not focused on selling you stuff, it’s really important to create spaces and experiences that help you feel things.”Glossier’s physical space philosophy is to provide a beauty parlour playground to try products, connect with the brand’s community and to offer full brand immersion for as long as visitors want to spend in-store.

All this comprises a disruptive new way to do retail. For Millennials, and their younger cohort, Generation Z. It’s not retail at all, it’s placemaking. Places to hang out, sample, interact and generate conversations that switch between online and offline communities. 

Brands should be considering tuning in to ideas such as AI-driven recommendations, digital entertainment zones or activism trends to drive engagement. For brands to succeed in this new era of retail, they need to have a checklist that includes emotional connection with customers as well as retail experiences that offer: shareability, delight, seamlessness, transparency and relevance.

Future-proofing retail strategy aside, one of the most important watchwords in 2019, is authenticity. As well as digitising stores and creating engagement, changing the retail dynamic has to be done through the lens of authenticity.  Consumers (especially Millennials and Gen Z) are demanding transparency which means brands can’t rely on style over substance anymore.

We know the customer is more likely to buy into brands that place greater emphasis on being ethically sound. The challenge for brands is finding ways to authentically translate this mindset into the retail environment – both in physical and digital sales channels – and ultimately to deliver value in new ways to a consumer who is becoming increasingly cynical.

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