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Being brave will future-proof brands in retail’s transformational twenties

30 September 2020

In the first of a two-part series, Executive Creative Director, Antony Parham, explores four areas where a brave approach by retailers is creating a new generation of physical retail experiences.

Retail brands have never before faced such a huge challenge. Driving sales, growing market share and simply surviving in a pandemic era, where the only constant thing is change, is relentless.

Even before the pandemic, high street retail headlines made for grim reading. Now a perfect storm of various lockdown measures, supercharged ‘digital natives’ buying online, compounded with a seismic shift in the urban landscape from city to neighbourhood, is driving retail brands to the hills of online DTC models. Traditional physical retail destinations seem to be left in an ever-increasing void of low footfall and decreasing means of ROI.

But the optimist would say the so-called retail apocalypse could be seen as a retail renaissance. There is a way to help reboot the sector. Bravery from brands is the key to unlocking the opportunity amidst the doom and gloom and experiences that put customers at the heart of that are part of the solution.

There are four ways a retailer could adapt to make the most of today, and ultimately be part of the new-generation, physical retail experience that withstands the turbulent market conditions of tomorrow.

1. Local takes a more leading role

2020 is fast defining the future for the way we live, work and spend our leisure time. Retail businesses and brands who believe physical retail destination experiences are a vital sensory and human part of a brand ecosystem in the pandemic crisis, should perhaps look back, in order to move forward.

History has shown us that non-conformists and brave brands constantly define the future of the urban landscape. Take Soho and Shoreditch in London, Soho, Meat Packing, Lower East Side, Brooklyn and Williamsburg in New York and Kreuzberg in Berlin, for example. Once cheap neighbourhoods for cultural trailblazers, in turn attracting gentrification and big brands, acting local, increasing the cost of living and driving the cultural trailblazers to the next urban blank canvass.

As we witness the (albeit temporary) decline of iconic retail destinations, the pandemic era is giving birth to a new breed of cultural neighbourhoods and creating bold, new playgrounds for retail brands to thrive that are more localised, more diverse in location and more affordable. Where digital algorithms deliver product basics, so people have time to enjoy shopping locally, in multi-sensory personal experiences. Milan and Paris are already paving the way for more localised, human-centric living with civic authorities drafting a ‘15 minute city’ vision, where new developments of mixed use neighbourhood clusters change the cities rhythm from long commuting times to live, work and play on the doorstep. Retail brands can grasp this new opportunity and shift to localisation.

2. Radical reinvention of traditional business models

In this challenging time for physical retail destinations, ‘build it and they will come’ will only work if the experience offer is so compelling (and safe) it cannot be missed.

AREA15 in Las Vegas, a new experiential art, entertainment and retail destination aims to reinvent physical leisure destinations with global expansion plans as unmissable destinations with the mantra “Come curious and leave different”.

Mainstream retail and legacy businesses must become more agile, planning radical new format strategies reinventing their offer. Recent news that speaks to this includes Pret’s shift to subscription and John Lewis’s plans to transform failing stores into affordable housing, building a brand platform with a smaller, but better, store estate.

3. Local stores blur into local culture hubs

Fewer, but better, localised flagships blurring retail, hospitality and local culture, curated and tailored to each neighbourhood audience's lifestyle choices, are helping brands shift from “branded stores” to hyperlocal “community hubs” that emotionally connect in more engaging ways.

Increasingly, big brands are acting like smaller independents. We saw this in the early 2000’s in Westbourne Grove, London, where French Connection and Nicole Farhi (202) opened unbranded concept lifestyle stores blending food, art, furniture and fashion. 202, is still a success, illustrating being brave can have lasting impact. Urban Outfitters' unbranded destinations in Hollywood (Space 15 Twenty), Brooklyn (Space Ninety 8) and Austin (Space 24 Twenty) are engaging examples of localised stores as culture hubs today.

4. Digitising neighbourhoods

As we see the birth of a more caring ‘human age’ with global lockdowns fuelling togetherness and a sense of community, smart brands and startups are helping to bond people to local businesses becoming lifeboats for social good.

Click it Local is a great example of lockdown-inspired entrepreneurial brave thinking. A Brighton based online delivery service, bringing small independent physical retailers products to your door, taking on Amazon in a human, ethical way and helping to keep local retail brands alive. Quick success has seen expansion of the service to East London.

It seems the current conditions have become a catalyst to ignite innovation and creativity. The retail businesses most likely to survive and thrive, are the ones who can embrace bravery.

In part two, we will explore five key strategies for retail success in a new world order for physical retail destinations. Stay tuned.