This is how virtual and physical retail will coexist post-pandemic

By Simon Hathaway, MD EMEA at retail innovation agency Outform

It’s been hard to miss the headlines on store closures in recent months. But if you cut out the noise, it’s the stores that will remain open – reimagined as ‘experience centres’ – that should be the talking point.

As other retailers follow this general downsizing trend trickling through bricks and mortar estates, we’re going to start seeing the primary role of retail reimagined and the retained retail estate might be a glimpse to the near future. We don’t yet know what an optimum ‘experience centre’ should look like, but the post-pandemic customer pressure for safe, touchless retail points towards the cross-pollination of physical and virtual for all retail.

Because shoppers do want to return to stores – just safely.

And tech plays a significant role in that. At the end of May, Outform surveyed 1,000 US consumers: in order to feel safe while shopping, more than two thirds of them (67%) would like to see self-checkout options made available via mobile devices; and nearly half (43%) wanted to see voice-activated solutions. Clearly, technology will be the key that unlocks their wallets and makes them feel comfortable shopping again.

Physical retail is by no means dead – but it does require a rethink. A flagship store is no longer just a physical retail space. Rather, it’s an opportunity to engage customers in a safe fashion.

Interaction is the key here. 

Half (49%) of those polled in Outform’s research believed that interactive merchandising displays would improve the retail experience. So now, it’s the job of brands to use technologies beyond the usual touchscreen fare – think voice, gesture and so on – to bring their items to life in that physical space.

In terms of clinching those big-ticket buys in brand-owned stores, is there a way they can build interactive experiences that clearly show how their product trumps the competition? Naturally, they can’t pilfer another brand’s IP – but the idea of a clear walkthrough in-store, guided by gesture or voice, which highlights where the brand you’re interested in shines where others fall, could be an interesting route to pursue. That is achievable today, though a future of AR and mixed reality as consumers adopt smart glasses is arguably more exciting.

It’s time to make new dogs of old tricks. 

Tied down by expensive real estate, physical retail has to be more than just a conventional store. For the right brands, creative engagement will help extend the experience beyond a browse and drive customers to physical stores.

If brands dare to innovate and find creative solutions to customer trepidation, they can ensure physical and virtual retail coexist long after lockdown.

Certainly the technology is there. Digital twins (virtual replicas of physical devices, traditionally used by data scientists to run simulations before building devices in reality) have already been used to recreate store environments online. At a commercial level, this technology could be used to offer an immersive experience for shoppers who aren’t comfortable returning to stores, though more likely will be the use of digital twins to showcase products in virtual showrooms.

We are already seeing fast growing technologies that take people into physical stores from their digital device and once that nervousness passes, this technology is still useful, as not everyone has the time or resource to spend a huge amount of time in-store.

Physical and virtual retail environments aren’t mutually exclusive – they work best when complementing one another. This is only going to be accelerated in the years after this pandemic, and it’s going to change retail for the better.

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