The Future of Retail: You need to adapt, innovate or lose

Simon Collins discusses the future of retail and highlights the brands getting it right

Simon Collins is the former Dean of The New School’s Parsons School of Design. He is the founder of Fashion-Culture-Design, a new conference aimed at rewriting the rules, and WGSN is a founding partner of the conference.

Here he blogs exclusively for us on the future of retail:

“Let’s be honest, when we go to department stores or shopping malls it’s rarely because they’re surprising and innovative. Increasingly it’s for show-rooming (see it in-store, buy it online). Many stores have accepted this and cut their staffing levels to the bare minimum.

A thirty-something friend of mine is a fairly avid shopper but I’d be hard-pressed to tell you the last time I saw her buy something in a brick-and-mortar store. She prefers instead to click around on Net-a-Porter, Shopbop, Matches Fashion, Forward by Elyse Walker and more e-commerce sites where she can expertly search by designer, price, keyword or simply by “What’s New.”

Luxury fashion available on e-commerce site Forward by Elyse Walker

Compared with relying on a potentially unhelpful, overworked or snooty salesperson, her method is a streamlined, efficient way to find her Stella McCartney dresses or Gianvito Rossi shoes. This happens mostly on her laptop but increasingly on her iPhone 6.

This is pretty normal today and teenagers know no different. Twenty years ago, however, it was impossible and to most of us, unimaginable. Which brings us to the question: How will customers want to shop 20 years from now? Or, given the current rapid rate of change, in two years?

What lies ahead for the future of retail.

Obviously, the online and mobile world will only continue to grow. We all know you can buy practically anything on your laptop, tablet or smartphone. FarFetch, the site founded by fashion entrepreneur José Neves that enables over 400 small boutiques to sell worldwide, just added kid’s clothes and beauty to its slate of women’s and menswear shops. Retailers like FarFetch, Net-A-Porter and MyTheresa have shown us that women can be comfortable buying five-figure dresses, fine jewellery and fur coats without touching them first. Increasingly, luxury brands like Chanel—which did gangbusters with a capsule of fine jewellery on Net-A-Porter last year—that formerly would never consider making their merchandise so openly available, are coming around to the idea that you have to go where the customer is. A few remain skeptical, and good luck to them.

Tap to buy

Going forward, there will need to be innovations that allow people to shop seamlessly via their social networking apps. If you’re the person who invents a widget to turn a “like” into a “buy” with a mere tap of the fingers, then hats off to you. Brands have to find other ways to go where their customers are. Want to buy Kerry Washington’s dress on the latest episode of “Scandal?” Tap-tap, done. Want to buy the jeans you saw on that girl on the tube? Snap-tap, done again.

The ‘new’ retail experience

So does all this mean that the brick-and-mortar store is going the way of the T-Rex? Some might think that but I humbly disagree. Just look at online-only entities like Warby Parker and Moda Operandi that have established physical spaces to complement their e-commerce platforms. That’s the wrong way around surely?

 “But no, you see one of the things you can’t buy online is an actual experience. Touching actual things, meeting actual people, having actual conversations. Even with much touted hyper-realistic Virtual Reality you are still sitting on the couch, in your shorts, alone.”

wgsn_blogs_retail_Dover Street Market-DSM3

Retail Future: Dover Street Market’s new London interior

Think of the way the Dover Street Market stores in London, Beijing, New York, Tokyo are a cross between boutiques and art installations, remaking their interiors every season.

Dover Street Market

While the new Samsung store in New York’s Meatpacking District is so modern it doesn’t actually sell anything; you just get to play with stuff.

Samsung's VR in their NYC store

It seems like if you build it (and give them something to post on Instagram), they will come. Saks Fifth Avenue seems to have got the message, spurring the massive renovation (or “reinvention, redevelopment and reimagination” as Saks president Marc Metrick called it) of its Fifth Avenue flagship in New York which will bring in buzzy Paris restaurant L’Avenue, a champagne bar with a view of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Rockefeller Center and a John Barrett salon.

So these days if you’re going to actually get on your Citibike/Uber/Juno/Zipcar, and go to a shop, you need a reason to do so far more compelling than mere acquisition. Perhaps the service is sublime and the décor divine, or maybe there’s a in-person repair or customisation service, or perhaps you will meet others like you and find The One.

This is what really stellar retailers understand, and it is what is helping them stay ahead of the competition.”

Enjoyed this guest blog? Follow Simon on Twitter here.


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