Despite all the headlines, the high street isn’t at death’s door.
Yes, brick and mortar retailers have faced unprecedented challenges over the course of the last 12 months, with non-essential stores closed for much of this period in abidance with Covid-19 regulations. And, yes, it’s also true to say that some big names have disappeared from our high streets in the last year. But the majority haven’t.
The coronavirus pandemic and resulting lockdowns have certainly triggered an unprecedented and exponential shift to online shopping across all categories, from general merchandise through to grocery and apparel. But does this mark the end of the brick-and-mortar store? Absolutely not. It’s more likely just the end of physical stores as we previously knew them.
2021 – the year retailers untap the full potential of stores?
Let’s be honest, buying stuff online is always going to be more convenient than jumping in a car and driving to a store to get what you want. But brick-and-mortar businesses do not have to beat e-commerce at its own game, they simply have to find ways to make the trip worthwhile for the consumer.
Physical retail still offers a fantastic way for brands and customers to connect, particularly when it comes to fashion and apparel, and once they’re allowed to reopen again, I expect to see retailers going all out to attract customers back to stores by offering more immersive and meaningful in-store experience.
The writing is already on the wall, literally in our case. At Widd Signs, we’ve been busy creating and installing traditional and digital branding in the stores of a number of well-known retailers, with many brands using the latest lockdown as an opportunity to improve their in-store customer offering and experiences.
Technology, of course, will have a key role to play in helping retailers to attract customers back into stores. The sector has seen huge technological advancements over the last 10 years, but I expect that is nothing compared to the pace of change we will see over the next few years as retailers in every category rethink how they engage and serve consumers.
Harness the power of AI
If they’re not already, artificial intelligence (AI) systems will soon become a retailer’s best friend, playing a key role in the automation and augmentation of the retail process.
We’re already seeing evidence of AI being put to good use by retailers to allay hygiene and safety concerns and tempt shoppers back into stores. Technologies, such as UXG’s Auto-Q system, are able to automatically monitor and regulate the flow of people coming into stores, while also providing real-time information on in-store customer journeys and hot-spots.
AI also has a role to play in helping retailers when it comes to the challenge of product disinfection, with Covid-19 potentially remaining on surfaces for several days. By combining AI and virtual reality technologies, physical and digital retailers can offer shoppers the use of ‘virtual fitting rooms’, allowing them to virtually try clothes on using their ‘personal 3D body avatar’.
In addition, AI has the potential to revolutionise the way customers pay for goods in stores too, playing a key role as self-payment machines replace traditional cashier staff. In particular, I expect AI technologies to be central to offering shoppers a ‘no-checkout experience’, using virtual cards via sensors and deep learning.
Create fun and vibrant spaces
Shopping should be fun, and this year I think we’ll see more focus than ever before on creating exciting and memorable (for all the right reasons!) environments where customers actually want to spend some time. In-store shopping should deliver an easy, relaxing, and convenient experience for customers, and I expect to see retailers working hard to create vibrant spaces that are simple and enjoyable to navigate. In-store screens and stand-out signage, particularly faux neon signage which generates real impact, will be key to elevating spaces and delivering unforgettable and pleasurable in-store customer experiences.
Some retailers are already ahead of the game. We recently completed a stunning project for retail giant Primark at its new multi-million-euro flagship Barcelona store, which saw us create and install illuminated exterior and interior signage, comprising of approximately 5,000 energy saving LEDs, to deliver a stunning visual impact. During the first lockdown, we also completed a major project for M&S at their Market Street store in Manchester where we installed two huge eye-catching cantilever signs, running vertically over a number of floors, to dazzling effect.
The opportunities that in-store screens provide to retailers in terms of sharing immersive content and promoting product and online offerings, are exciting and growing all the time, and I expect them to become a mainstay in stores over the coming months and years.
Offer in-store events and personalised experiences
As part of rethinking the physical shopping experience, we’ll see more and more retailers launching one-off events and providing personalised experiences that create a genuine connection between customers and retailers. Events provide the perfect opportunity to bring the brand to life and offer customers an unforgettable experience, enhancing brand perception and shopper loyalty.
The store is dead, long live the store!
The physical store is far from dead, as evidenced by the fact that ecommerce brands such as Amazon are looking to branch out into physical stores too. They, like many other brands, recognise that stores are a key route to offering customers real experiences and building lasting relationships, and once they are allowed to reopen again, I feel confident we’ll see the most forward-thinking, customer-focussed brands really start to harness their full potential.
To learn more about how we’re helping retailers to stand out on the high street, visit Widdsigns.co.uk.
Credit: Gary Williams, managing director of branding and signage experts Widd Signs, which works with retailers including M&S, Primark and Schuh to elevate brand signage and in-store shopper experiences to the next level.