As digital commerce forces brick-and-mortar stores to innovate, industry experts share their views on the future of physical retail.

Designer Rebecca Minkoff features dressing room “magic” mirrors and sales floor touch screens in her retail flagships.

From department stores to discounters to home improvement chains, nearly all retailers are engaged in the same game: trying to imagine what stores of the future will look like in an increasingly digitized world.

Chain Store Age asked several industry experts to offer their insights on the future of bricks-and-mortar retailing. Their responses run the gamut, but a common theme emerged: The age of brick-and-mortar is far from over, but the rules of the game are changing fast. Going forward, most retail stores will no longer have the luxury of just selling products. Determining and filling a larger purpose, and shaping the physical space to it, will be essential.

Lee Peterson

EVP Brand, Strategy and Design WD Partners

The showroom concept is the store of the future for digital natives. What is it exactly? Well, imagine a store where instead of wandering around trying to find the items you want, you browse for them all on a tablet, or in singular fashion on a series of tables. After scanning your choices, you simply pay using a credit/debit card, or your phone, right at the terminal next to the items (similar to a self-checkout experience), or wherever is most convenient for you in the store. Employees are then signaled in the stock room, where they pick the purchased items and bring them to you or ship them to your house — on the spot.

A “showroom” store indicates that there would be minimal SKUs on the sales floor, whose purpose will be to allow customers to touch and feel, try on or just play with the merchandise. We know from our own experience and have learned from past research that touch and feel is a critical aspect of buying at a physical retailer.

In the store of the future, you would also be able to buy online and pick up at the store. There would be individual, designated customer service areas specifically designed for engaging with staff, online pickups and returns, and other customer service needs. This is far different from today’s dominant setup, where BOPIS customers wait in long lines with customers who have complaints or a myriad of other issues to work out. Also, no more waiting for what you have already decided you want. You check out and go. The goods are on the way.

If you do buy in the store and have to wait a short time to have your items collected, there would be a leisure area where you can sit and use your smartphone, grab a snack or coffee, or just get to know your kids again. The thought behind this concept is to combine the best of online and in-store shopping and let you have an enjoyable experience while someone else does the work. And young people love it.

Maris Cohen

Director of Content Marketing The NPD Group

In an effort to lure shoppers back to the physical store, retailers from Bloomingdale’s to Topshop have deployed augmented reality technology in stores, allowing shoppers to see how products look — without physically trying anything on. From Microsoft Kinect-powered 3D virtual dressing rooms to Panasonic smart mirrors, fashion and beauty retailers have gone to great lengths to expedite the offline consideration process.

But while certainly engaging and fun, digital dressing rooms and mirrors don’t provide much more insight than holding up an actual shirt against your body or holding up a blush compact next to your face. Though additive online, offline these technologies don’t seem to add value. Moreover, they can’t offer much insight into how something fits or feels. From the consumer’s perspective, it might just be worth it to endure the dressing room queue to avoid a future return.

Given that, what will the physical store of the future look like? Retailers who seem to get it are those who have extended the perks of online shopping to the physical store. For example:

  • Sephora and Pantone teamed up to create Color IQ, a digital device that scans your skin and matches you with the right foundation color.
  • Software company Zugara’s technology enables shoppers to physically try on one apparel item and digitally view how it looks on their bodies in another color or style.
  • Bloomingdale’s and Kohl’s have added touch screens to some of their fitting rooms, enabling shoppers to browse customer reviews and request sales associate assistance — without ever leaving the room.
  • Rebecca Minkoff allows shoppers to search products in different sizes and colors from dressing room “magic mirrors” and sales floor touch screens.
  • Lowe’s introduced an in-store navigation augmented reality app that helps customers locate products in stores on their smartphones.
  • Israeli mobile app Zikit pushes mobile coupons from retailers to shoppers who walk by stores, allowing stores to tailor personalized suggestions to customers after repeated app use.

With e-retailers such as Amazon now opening physical store locations, the age of brick-and-mortar is far from over. The store of the future will seamlessly integrate technologies such as those outlined here. The next chapter in brick-and-mortar success will largely depend on deploying omnipresent solutions that address customer pain points to create more efficient, personalized and hassle-free shopping experiences.

Ken Nisch

Chairman JGA

The store of the future will be smaller or bigger, simpler or more experiential, just around the corner or a destination, and focused on “everything” about something, or “certain things” about everything. In short, it will be different. The difference might come in terms of functioning as a guide shop or web room — a place that deals primarily with the logistics of consumption. That could mean addressing customers’ needs after ordering online, or responding to their curiosity around fit, quality, texture and inspiration before they order online.

The SOTF might be bigger to address the customer’s need to be inspired, or create and manufacture self-designed products onsite. This “store” could operate 24/7, teaching customers how to make items just for themselves, or for their own micro-business (think Etsy). Or it might house a gallery to showcase their capabilities to share with others. Customers could share their expertise, trading it for new skills, or even offering it on a subscription basis.

The SOTF might be the world’s biggest walk-in closet to provide an opportunity for the sharing economy (think Rent the Runway). Customers may “shop” weekly to borrow, based on a subscription format (think library) related to what they are going to wear next week for work, travel or a wedding.

The SOTF may be simpler, because it’s just about things needed for outfitting — based on a passion (fishing, exercise), or a need (new baby, a change in climate), functioning in the way that a general store used to, albeit one targeted to life stage and/or lifestyle. It might be highly experiential, perhaps like a mini-vacation, or an adventure augmented by AR/VR — full of taste, scent and sound.

And finally, what SOTF won’t be about is storage. No more massive inventories or front door commerce. It will be about having many “doors,” be they social, digital and even self-commerce.

Interesting times? Certainly. Business as usual? No.

Jill Standish

Senior Managing Director of Retail Accenture

Changing consumer spending habits and the digital explosion means retailers need to rethink and reimagine the physical store and its value proposition. It can no longer be a mere source for distributing products. It must become a showcase for discovery and engagement for the brand in order to gain foot traffic and ultimately a share of the consumers wallet.

There are great examples where the physical store is a showcase depicting the brand rather than a place to sell products. If we make this a reality, then the metrics used today to measure the productivity and return on investment of a store need to be rethought. Consumers may use the store for ideas and inspiration and then continue their journey by purchasing online. Retailers who think broadly will be able to look at the various brand touch points and determine the impact that each is having on overall sales and profit. This hyperlocal thinking will mean that stores will be different and tailored to the needs of the community, be it a city or small neighborhood.

Stores will become centers for community-building and communal experiences, spaces for living services that consumers prefer to consume outside of the home. Families will come to rely on stores for activities not previously associated with retail, including education, entertainment and wellness.

Stores will need to have a distinct local flavor, complementing their core business proposition with ideas, themes and events designed for the local consumer base. Stores can be repurposed to serve dual business and social needs, e.g., offering lifestyle services, do-it-yourself training classes and health check-ups, helping to differentiate in-store experiences, supplementing the product exploration and experimentation component.

Physical retail stores still have a long future ahead of them. But the game has changed. Retailers need to invest in the services and tools that will enable them to get hyper-personalized and experience-led. Online will surely be part of our shopping, but there are things that cannot replace the physical presence. Try having a cup of coffee online. It’s not the same as sipping a warm cup with a friend in a café.

Randy Burt

Partner A.T. Kearney

In the future, the customer will be the store. Whether we are talking about’s never-ending quest to enter new retail sectors, the steady flow of digitally enabled food and health-and-beauty-care start-ups or the emergence of digital engagement platforms, there’s no question that the digital revolution is having a profound impact on all traditional retailers and blurring the lines between channels.

These transformational forces are creating a fundamentally different future for both physical and digital retailers. Physical stores, digital retail, smart appliances and the Internet of Things will become information, experience and transactional nodes of their commercial worlds, creating value by uniquely satisfying specific shopper needs — for example, by sampling, providing experiences, fostering community, facilitating peer review, and offering automatic replenishment.

Traditional retailers who are poised for success need to do three things correctly:

  • Shape new in-store experiences by developing and investing in processes and technologies that promote more active customer engagement, eliminate checkout and payment frictions, and automate routine shopping.
  • Reimagine store layouts, creating interaction spaces where customers can come together discovering and directly engaging with products and services such as tastings and cooking classes, beauty stations, and health and wellness centers.
  • Repurpose and retrain workers to become curators of products and experiences who can amplify the impact of creative technology-enabled spaces while maintaining a human face at retail, especially as robotics and automation displace conventional in-store labor.

Sam Cinquegrani

CEO and Founder ObjectWave Corp

The physical store of the future won’t arrive overnight. Businesses will take incremental steps to reach that destination, improving their abilities to collect customer data and analyze it, as well as to create more engaging and positive in-store experiences. Simultaneously, they will have to wait for the consumer to adapt and catch up with technologically driven changes — so it’s a two-way street.

The future will draw on changes in consumer behavior as much as on new technology. As customers grow more accustomed to using virtual reality to view and try on products remotely, the same technology could be deployed in stores.

Mass customization, already seen in products like sneakers, and just-in-time delivery will work to shrink the size of the stores and their inventory, while still tailoring experiences around each customer individually.

Inverse curation, the process of taking customer desires into account and then building a store around those wants and needs, is the ultimate experience all retailers will strive for. Imagine walking into a store and having a virtual aisle that has been curated only for you, with ideas for new products gleaned from your purchasing history and behaviors. For retailers, this will mean understanding the customer on an increasingly personal level.

In that regard, while the store of the future is coming, many of its elements are already here, waiting to be integrated into this hyper-personalized experience.

Caitlin Neyer

Associate Director of Strategy and Insights FRCH Design Worldwide

Headlines splashed across multiple news sources tell a dramatic tale of the “Retail Apocalypse” and the “Death of American Retail.” Articles spell out the latest round of store closures and bankruptcy filings. On the flip side, there are the shareworthy beats of fantastical, high-concept, one-off “Stores of the Future” concepts, from Farfetch to Kith — the key word being “one-off.”

Where is the middle ground — the brick-and-mortar store that is experientially special but scalable for a national retailer? The foundation that could allow brands to explore this subject lies within removing the word “shop” from their retail vocabulary.

Many retailers are simply too caught up in their own personally-spun web of sales figures. A brand should be careful about creating an over-the-top, fanciful, PR-generating, one-off gimmick thinking it will solve the brand’s problems. Viral, inspiring and irresistible are not mutually exclusive from money-making, but the road to successfully driving lasting resonance in your customer’s heart, mind and wallet is to establish a practice of profitable experientialism.

There appears to be an unspoken industry pressure to implement certain “experimental” ideas to check an imaginary check box, but there’s no magical playbook of “one-solution-fits-every-retailer.” For example, to assume that the right answer is a high-touch, digitally infused, “Jetsons”-esque space ship would be a mistake. The use of technology should align with and enhance the experience, not be added just to tick the “technology” buzzword off the list. But, there are a few steps every retailer can take to future-proof themselves in this unprecedented, continually evolving era of consumer expectation. Every brand must take a step back and revisit its purpose. What distinctly “you” benefit are you bringing to the world? (Hint: that statement should not contain the word “sell.”)

Once that statement is top of mind and redefined as needed, run it through a “human” filter. Human, not customer. Customers shop, humans live. As humans, the first thought in our journey is not “I’m going to shop online” or “I’m going to shop in-store.” Instead, we think about the problem we have and then we search for the best, most efficient, simple, convenient way to solve it. By continually considering and anticipating human needs and determining how your brand purpose can address them, you will arrive at an output to design an ever-relevant, future-proofed experience.

Deborah Weinswig

Managing Director Fung Global Retail & Technology

Our vision of the future includes a mix of formats, store sizes and retail propositions. Smaller, and often more local, stores will serve demand for convenience and collection. We are already seeing retailers such as Target open these kinds of stores. Meanwhile, high-quality flagship stores will focus on the customer experience in order to attract leisure shoppers who are looking to spend some enjoyable time browsing and buying.

We see brick-and-mortar stores thriving when they serve one or more of the following shopper missions:

  • Convenience: As shoppers make more pre-planned purchases online, they will disproportionately turn to stores for distress purchases of goods they need quickly, and they will likely turn to stores close to home for these items.
  • Collection: Shoppers will go to a store to pick up purchases made online, which provides retailers with an opportunity to deliver a quality experience and add incremental sales.
  • Destination: Leisure shoppers will still make trips to those malls and stores that they like to visit.

Large-store retailers that offer relatively few compelling reasons for shoppers to visit their stores will face the most difficulty in this retail landscape. These kinds of retailers must consider how their estates will meet shopper needs in the future. That may mean not only fewer stores, but also stores that cater to how consumers shop in a digital age. By focusing on one or more of the themes of convenience, collection and destination, such large-store operators may be able to successfully reposition themselves for the future.

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