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  • Dave Nemeth

The new frontiers of retail

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f one reads or searches through any current article to discover what the future of retail looks like, your search feed will be filled with information about how online is the new frontier, with more consumers becoming familiar with the concept of purchasing goods online. You will also be inundated with concepts such as ‘click and collect’ and ‘curbside collection’. Much as these may be great initiatives for this  new world where social distancing is going to be with us for a long time, however, it certainly is not the kind of  initiative that is capable of setting a retailer apart from the others.


This is even more of a challenge in South Africa when one considers the volume of retailers which are based in large scale concrete blocks, generally referred to as malls. Differentiation and innovation occur when there is a total shift in mindset and a drastic change in the way in which things have previously been done. The lockdown has forced retailers to get more involved in the digital space but, unfortunately, things look very much the same as they did prior to COVID-19. Online stores have become almost as boring as physical retail spaces. Social media is being used to promote discounted product offerings, the odd competition; as well as promoting their online presence. The result of this is a utilitarian approach to a space that is filled with noise and clutter. The saddest part of it all is that very little retail innovation has occurred during the pandemic.


Going forward, the winners will be those creating amazing, interactive experiences both online and in-store and, of course, combining the two: ‘Phygital’ (a term coined some years back to explain the need for physical stores to embrace digital technology in order to enhance the customer journey within a brick and mortar store). Welcome to the world of virtual. Whether it refers to events, conferences, exhibitions and now retail, this buzzword is being used more than ever before.


Exciting times offering huge possibilities except for one major flaw, which I will explain. Perhaps the best example to use is that of a conference. In the days of physical conferences, you booked an entire day away from the office and were quite prepared to spend the time enjoying the talks, engaging with other attendees, and perusing the information provided by each speaker or brand. You were welcomed with a cup of coffee and snacks to prepare you for a day of gaining knowledge and participating in discussions and, possibly, even breakaway activities. Now that this is no longer possible, we are flooded with Zoom conference requests and invitations to virtual conferences.


The biggest problem here is that the dynamics have to change. One cannot expect a human being to sit an entire day in front of their computer watching live feeds of conference speakers and engaging over digital platforms for discussions when, most of the time, all you hear is “can you still hear me?”; “can you all see my screen?” and feeds being interrupted due to intermittent breaks in internet connection. The best experiences are those that allow the visitor a few days to be able to access the content which consists of videos (high resolution with great production);  conference material available as downloadable PDFs, chat rooms, questionnaires, direct social media feeds and, of course, limited Zoom workshops. These can be booked at a variety of times and uploaded once they are completed, allowing for a broader audience.


Virtual showrooms

In a similar way, we are being introduced to virtual showrooms where the experience is far from exciting and engaging. Why on earth would you take a retail space that, even in its physical form, fails to create a unique experience and then go ahead and replicate this online? A great example of this is the new IKEA virtual store. The IKEA experience is about the vast selection of products and great offers available – a one-stop shop for a vast variety of homeowners and income groups. The IKEA virtual showroom allows the viewer to navigate an actual store which has been constructed using 360° photos that have been stitched together. Little circles are placed over selected products and, by clicking on these, they reveal a bit more information and you can add them to your purchases. A great concept, but one which fails terribly, and this is why.

The imagery is low res and pixelated, maneuvering through the store is clunky – this is the reason why gaming platforms make use of joysticks. The system spends most of the time with spinning circles indicating that it is loading the next scene or content. This may be novel to visitors in the beginning, but it will not be long-lived in its current form. Unfortunately, I fear that many more retailers will go this same route, only to realise that it was not a great solution. It would have been better to have a completely re-imagined an exciting online experience that used beautiful graphics of stunningly curated products, with quality videos of those items being demonstrated or the stories behind them being told. Beautiful, downloadable catalogues could be designed for each curation. Throw in a unique playlist so visitors can listen to music while exploring the content. Their main online store could remain for those customers who are just wanting to shop online and who are happy to search all their products. A few online workshops could even be arranged via Zoom or similar platforms; whilst they refrain from relying solely on this as the core of their experience.


The lesson from this is that you cannot take a physical experience and expect it to work on a digital platform;, nor can you take a digital experience and expect that to enhance your physical shopping experience. The Phygital in store experience uses digital to enhance the purchasing experience and allow for stores to showcase fewer of their product variations. Digital should be utilised to enhance storytelling throughout the store and allow for questions to be answered quickly. Retail stores that take up thousands of square metres are no longer viable and people will refrain from visiting you based purely on being able to browse through your vast selection, when this can be done via a mobile phone. They will visit because they want a unique engagement with your brand and new product offering.

Those that want to survive the new era of retail will have to step back and completely rethink what they are doing and how they deliver it. Click & Collect and Curbside Collection are not going to cut it.



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