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The Role of the Retail Store in 2019

2018 was a year dominated by dismal headlines for retail, with almost 1,300 store closures reported in the UK and nearly 5,000 in the US. Leading brands like Toys R Us, House of Fraser, Sears and Debenhams all announced plans to shut physical locations, putting tens of thousands of jobs at risk.

Many retail brands have suffered as a result of lower footfall and profits, struggling to compete with the ever-evolving offering of ecommerce - optimum speed, convenience and customisation, all at the touch of a smartphone. With the ability to access products from all around the world and fewer restrictions for those in smaller towns, the internet has given shoppers less reason to visit their high street.

The Role of the Physical Store

A lot of decisions to close stores have come from recognition of the need for physical retail to evolve, not disappear, and for some retailers this means ‘cutting losses’ and focussing on their best-performing locations. Having a large number of stores is no longer enough.

Many customers no longer visit stores to buy. Instead, online shopping is the go-to for making a purchase, knowing that there is a plethora of choice, reviews and comparison available to ensure they are buying the right item, for the best price. Comparatively, bricks-and-mortar stores are being repositioned as the destination for trying, testing, exploring and, ultimately, ‘experiencing’.

Providing an Experience

Perhaps the biggest buzzword for retail last year, ‘experience’ became the focus for many brands in 2018. If a store couldn’t replicate what customers could get online, it needed to offer something different, but equally valuable. What this means is capitalising on the physical presence of customers to immerse them in the surroundings, creating a personal connection with the brand that goes beyond the purchase of a single product. More often than not, this is done through the use of technology, which brands are using in increasingly smart ways to provide personalisation, convenience and enjoyment to their customers.

What might this modern retail ‘experience’ look like? It could feature interactive mirrors that let customers order another size or colour without leaving their fitting room; a background music solution that tailors itself around the demographics of people in the store; or digital screens that integrate with mobile technology to showcase the products a customer has been browsing online when they walk past. A great example of a brand optimising technology to create this modern-day retail experience is global fashion retailer ZARA, which last year revealed “pioneering features designed to transform the customer experience and integrate online and in-store shopping”.

In 2019, retail will see even further creativity and innovation, with more and more retailers turning to technology to provide something fresh and unique for their customers. Instead of siloed technologies that may be superficial or lack a real purpose, the case for partnerships with technology ‘disruptors’ that build brand experiences from scratch will grow, in order to align with the wider business strategy.

Meeting Customer Needs

Retail brands at the top will recognise that at the heart of their store experiences should always be customer needs. Ecommerce leaders such as Amazon and Asos do an extremely good job of meeting these, utilising technology and online tools to facilitate seamless checkouts, highlight relevant products, provide useful information and ultimately, increase loyalty and sales. They know what shoppers want from them, and are constantly finding ways to deliver this. The physical store, therefore, needs to be equally customer-centered.

This is even more important as consumers become increasingly savvy and demand transparency. Today, consumers are more particular on where they spend their money, with the concept of ethical purchasing - AKA ‘conscious consumerism’ - playing a key part in many purchasing decisions. This is supported by data from 2018 that showed how spending on household goods and clothing is falling - an indication of the ‘peak’ consumers have reached after years of filling their homes with material items. Instead, people in general are more conscious of where they spend their money.

In line with this, independent shops and artisan offerings have grown their appeal, and despite all the doom and gloom the retail space as a whole is becoming more vibrant and diverse. Consumers are more open-minded and are looking for something different in stores, not the same items they have always been able to find in several places on the high-street.

The Future of Retail

Whatever their strategy, retailers need to be smart and willing to adapt in order for their stores to survive. Clinging to old ways of marketing and hoping that customers will flood through the doors on their own accord won’t work, and with ecommerce expected to grow 20% in 2019, the same challenges and opportunities remain.

The best of the best will demonstrate how providing customers with memorable experiences in their stores can equate to long-term loyalty. With a willingness to adapt to digital trends, the right use of technology, and confidence in the role of their physical stores, retailer brands remain in good stead for 2019. Here’s to a year of innovation, creativity, and further reinvention of the customer experience!


At Startle, we work with retail and hospitality brands to create bespoke, memorable experiences for their customers through music and technology. Visit our Startle Experiences page to learn more.