Simon Mitchell and Torquil McIntosh, of Sybarite architectural studio in London, reveal how a post-pandemic reboot of the retail experience will stress personal connection above all else
We are often quizzed as to what we see as the future of luxury retail. Fashion is about catwalks that conjure collections based on creativity, curiosity, craftsmanship and credibility. Luxury retail stores follow suit in their role as ever-changing stage sets to showcase the collections.
According to Hankook Kim, CEO of luxury Korean eyewear brand Gentle Monster, the future of luxury lies in the stimulation of the customer – a full-time commitment for any brand or retail operator as concentration levels shorten. “Longevity is key for retailers and their designers and environments need to support a minimum five-year plan,” he says. “To that end, the conundrum is: what is timeless and a good investment, and what is spontaneous and immersive, and how can all this exist in perfect equilibrium?”
A great demonstration of this exists at luxury department store SKP-S Beijing. Unveiled pre-pandemic in 2019, this collaboration between Sybarite, retail operators SKP and Gentle Monster represents an entirely imagined future, with an architecture to match, where most of the floor is clear of goods and assigned to artworks. Here the most powerful brands such as Prada, Gucci and Fendi can deliver newness in another dimension, with storytelling at the heart of the encounter.
Gen Z craves experiences and a convergence between on- and offline. Personalisation is what sells, creating lasting loyalty through a service level that can only be reached through the power of the personal touch.
Kathryn Bishop, foresight editor at global strategic consultancy The Future Laboratory, believes that physical luxury retail will have to engage more with mindsets, rather than simply appealing to a ‘younger’ customer. “Across all age groups now, mindsets are largely centred on how something makes you feel,” she says. “Doing what makes you feel good is a mantra for a lot of people post-pandemic and post-lockdown. Physical luxury retail must tune into the emotional economy, for people of all ages, cultures, abilities and beliefs.”
As for convergence, Bishop says this is already well underway with plenty of brands offering ‘store mode’ experiences for shoppers, allowing them to pull up wish lists, order items to changing rooms, communicate with sales associates in stores, or even track down and reserve a product within a few seconds. “In the future, this will evolve into hybrid experiences in which retailers will use tracking tools – be it facial recognition, near-field technology, even QR codes – to engage with and understand people’s minute emotional or physical responses to items, spaces and experiences within a store,” she adds.
Bishop says it is not far-fetched to suggest that stores will be able to personalise messaging to the customers of the future. In regions such as China, shoppers already understand that by sharing data and preferences, they are giving brands constant feedback. “Essentially, in this future, data will ensure that no two shoppers get the exact same experience in-store, while for retailers they will be able to understand far more nuanced insights about how people navigate, experience and enjoy their stores – giving retailers ways to adapt or evolve this quickly in line with more agile interior set-ups,” she says.
Lucie Greene of Light Years, a futures, research and brand strategy practice, believes the future of immersive luxury shopping experiences will become less about inventory and product, and conventional formats like shelving and check outs. “Destination stores are taking experiential to a new level with theme-park, or even video game-influenced environments that are not just immersive but transform you out of your entire reality,” she says, citing the Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser boat experience at Walt Disney World in Florida, where guests feel as if they are living on a spaceship.
“Elsewhere, what started with cultural programming and developing a sense of community around stores has given way to the idea of stores as incubators for people’s personal brands and the creator economy,” she continues. “TikTok’s recent Westfield pop up, Google’s new flagship in New York, and Shopify’s new entrepreneur hangout all position themselves as service hubs for creators with workshops, sets to make content, and even studios to create podcasts. Meanwhile, stores like Neighbourhood Goods see themselves as platforms for a revolving door of new, up-and-coming brands to discover. There has been a general reframing of what a store is and increasingly this is multi-use, with hospitality and even co-working spaces included.”
Pivoting away from the purely transactional means that the role of the future retail store aspires to be a platform for thought leadership and creativity, Bishop says. “The future of luxury department stores will centre on the ways the store and its services can enhance the experience of visiting. The Future Laboratory refers to them as Hyperphysical Stores, underpinned by the Four Es of Retail. Stores will need to be enriching, emotional, ethereal and in some cases exclusive, by giving shoppers a hyper-personal experience tailored just to them.
Essentially the job of the retail architect is to successfully predict what is next. One needs to look at what has gone before on many levels. The key is an environment that can support malleability and transformability whilst ensuring longevity and quality. Retail needs to deliver on the possibilities of immersion, uniqueness and personalisation and ultimately find a way to forge a long-lasting connection with each customer.
This article has been adapted from copy written for Luxury Briefing magazine. For more information and membership options, including subscription to the magazine and invitations to exclusive events, please visit https://www.luxury-briefing.com/membership-options/