The Future Of Brick-And-Mortar Stores: Education And Product Discovery

To kick off a series of new ideas about the future of retail in an increasingly digitized 21st century, I’d like to begin with a look into the shifting role of physical retail. Although we don’t have a crystal ball to show us exactly what in-store shopping will look like years from now, we’re beginning to see a number of innovative ideas emerge within the retail world that look much different from what we traditionally think of as a “store.”

As companies continue to integrate and embrace the customer experience benefits of the omnichannel shopping environment, the stage is set for new ideas to take shape and find new ways to succeed.
The explosion and rapid development of digital technology we’ve been experiencing for over a decade now has had a considerable impact on how we communicate in virtually every capacity. As technology continues to make communicating increasingly convenient for the individual, these new expectations of greater ease and convenience also fall onto the companies with which consumers interact.

As a result, those retailers who embrace the shifting expectations by integrating things like well-designed ecommerce platforms and mobile apps are quickly becoming the ones who find success in an industry where resistors to change find themselves forced to close their doors as customers find better shopping experiences elsewhere.

As the shopping aspect of in-store retail becomes more of an endpoint within an expanded system of online product and price comparisons which used to take place in the store itself, the opportunity to transform the role of the store into a place for education and discovery has already begun to catch on with consumers as a new reason to leave their computers and actually go to the store itself.

Reorienting retail with personalized service in mind

Just about every new retail idea can be traced back to a fundamental question:

What can physical retail stores provide that online tools can’t?

The wide range of new retail ideas suggests that this question doesn’t have one simple answer. While some companies are throwing their chips down on reformatting their stores to fulfill a more educative role by building interactive classroom-style environments for product and technology discovery, others are focusing entirely on individualizing in-store service to give consumers the kind of personalized customer experience you simply can’t get through a website or mobile app.

A great example of a tool contributing to personalized in-store service in line with an omnichannel approach is Signature. Released just last year, this mobile app takes the concept of clienteling and transforms it into a mutually beneficial tool for retailers and customers alike. For customers, it acts a personal shopping assistant you can pull out of your pocket as soon as you enter a store providing event information, discount offers, up-to-date product information, and customer service tools. Particularly beneficial is an appointment-scheduling feature, which allows customers to make plans ahead of time with the sales associate they prefer.

For retailers, this kind of service provides floor staff with a wealth of knowledge about personal shopping habits, wish lists, and purchase histories of specific customers. On top of this, real-time tools allow sales associates to see when a customer actually enters the store along with a list of products they’re looking for.

Transforming retail into an educative environment for product discovery

Expanding the notion of more personalized service, some retailers have begun to experiment with a more educational approach to their in-store environments. While companies like Apple have adopted a more traditional classroom-style model for customer engagement by designing spaces solely for teaching customers about their products, other retailers have tried less obvious teaching tools tied directly to the product.

Eastern Mountain Sports, an outdoor recreation retailer has found success by arming their sales associates with iPads equipped with product videos. If a customer appears to be showrooming by comparing mountain climbing gear to find the best set, a staff member simply cues up a video of a climber scaling a mountain with ease using the product. According to chair of the Outdoor Industry Association Board of Directors, the success the company found with this technology has prompted it to get much more aggressive in terms of iPad integration. He went on to say,

“…it won’t just be about ecommerce. It will be about the experience. “