Amid the brightly-colored coats and metallic accessories of last month’s London Fashion Week, a new trend was emerging: haute tech. Burberry sent models down the runway in clothes embedded with digital chips that will allow customers to watch personalized videos of their garment being monogrammed; Topshop, in partnership with Google, launched a new multi-platform digital experience that allows consumers to create their own “look books,” and to purchase music and even nail polish from the show. While the technology is invisible, the effect it is having on the retail industry is changing the way architects think about designing places to shop.
“It used to be all about interior fit-out. Now it’s about user experience,” said Irwin Miller, a principal and retail practice area leader at Gensler. “Every client talks about where technology is going to occur ‘in space.’”
Courtesy Gensler / Ryan Gobuty
This attitude, Miller said, signals a trend toward mass customization. Consumers can buy almost anything online, where the shopping experience is specially tailored to their interests (as anyone who has received Amazon’s endless recommendations knows). But consumers expect a special experience when they go to a brick-and-mortar store. On the flip side, retailers are interested in driving up sales by capturing and using shopper information to create environments that seem to respond uniquely to each individual.
“The future of retail is really about applying the best of what we’ve learned in web and mobile and social applications over the last five or ten years and bringing it to the physical space,” said Colin O’Donnell, partner and COO at technology innovation strategy firm Control Group.
With more than half of U.S. consumers carrying smartphones in their pockets as they shop, retailers can now use anonymous, cookie-based technology to learn about other stores customers have visited and track their paths through the store. Not surprisingly, this makes some people nervous. But the situation may be analogous to the resistance to Internet cookies in the late 1990s: Computer users back then were uneasy about the idea, until they realized they could avoid entering passwords twice.
“You have to give the user something they’re going to like,” said O’Donnell. If physical retailers can see that a shopper is visiting a second time, they can adapt digital displays to show new items as that shopper passes by. If RFID chips identify clothing that a shopper is trying on, a digital display in the dressing room can allow the customer to request a different size or color. And if customers repeatedly pick up, then discard, an item, the manufacturer can rethink its design in the next production run.
For the Japan launch of Kate Spade’s new brand, Saturday, Control Group designed an iPad-based digital experience that delivers custom content to shoppers, letting them know, for instance, whether a nearby accessory complements the dress they are holding. The framework is designed to accommodate other devices, sensors, languages, and media as the brand grows and changes. Another of Control Group’s iPad-based projects recently launched in Delta’s LaGuardia Airport terminal. Designed for airport retailer OTG Management, the platform allows travelers to order food and other items from their seats at the gate, where they can also use the devices to check flight status and access the Internet.
As it is implemented at JFK, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Toronto airports along with LaGuardia, the technology will allow OTG to expand its operations by hundreds of seats without having to build new restaurants or hire extra employees.
All this technology, however, raises a question: If customers can check themselves out and stores don’t need a lot of infrastructure to operate, what will built retail environments look like in the future? If small, contained spaces are eliminated, what happens once the same concept is extrapolated to a mall, or across entire airports or cities?
“Alternate retailing is something we’ve seen in the last three years,” Miller said of Gensler’s projects. “The conditions of recent recessions gave way to new models.” In lieu of expensive new storefronts, pop-up shops began colonizing urban spaces; and architects and designers became responsible for the rapid deployment of highly-engaging, temporary environments that didn’t necessarily resemble traditional stores. In 2011, South Korean supermarket chain Tesco rolled out a virtual store that allowed commuters to scan QR codes printed on a large billboard designed to look like grocery store shelves. The campaign, designed by ad agency Cheil, helped the store compete with another chain that has more locations, and raised its online sales by 130 percent.
Now, architects and retailers are translating that spontaneity and customization into more permanent settings. Sports stores have been on the forefront in implementing this new model. In January, Canadian retailer Sport Chek unveiled its new “retail lab” in Toronto in concert with an overhaul of its advertising and social media strategies. Highlights of the store, designed by Sid Lee Architecture, include a build-your-own-Reebok kiosk that allows customers to create every part of their Reebok shoes and have them delivered to their homes in four to six weeks. Other machines can create custom ski and snowboard boot inserts, and analyze a runner’s gait.
Other market sectors are adopting the trend as well, trying to lure online shoppers into their spaces using the appeal of personalized experiences. One of Gensler’s recent projects, the HyundaiCard Air Lounge at South Korea’s Incheon International Airport, offers exclusive members retail and museum programs to help fliers relax and prepare for travel.
Another of the firm’s projects, the Patina floor-and wall-coverings showroom in Dallas’ high-end Knox Street corridor, allows customers to see hundreds of room scenes on digital displays, or play with on-screen tile selections and patterns for floors and backsplashes. While these digital features are similar to those available online, customers can also bring samples from their home décor and work with interior designers to create a personalized palette.
As stores become more interactive, online retailers may feel that they are missing out. On the heels of the introduction of Google’s new Google Glass technology, high-tech glasses that allow users to view the world through augmented reality and photograph what they see, the tech company has announced plans to open its own storefronts. The move is an indication that built retail space may still have an important role to play in an increasingly virtual world, opening up the opportunity for architects to think about new types of social interactions.
“We’ve been sharing online for the past ten years,” said O’Donnell. “If I can control that and expose that information to people I want to have access to it, it fundamentally changes the way people interact. There’s less of a barrier between you and the next person, and as a society you actually start to change as an organism.”