Virtual stylists, design it yourself and in-store yoga classes. Is this the future of shopping?
We’re now less a nation of shopkeepers, more a nation of shoppers. Spending is up – with clothing sales rising by 4.3 per cent from May to June this year. But with a rise in online shopping (which Mintel estimates now account for 20 per cent of all clothing and accessory purchases), fast-paced competition and a style-savvy customer who is demanding more for their money, it’s a fierce marketplace.
‘The consumer is genuinely king now,’ says shopping guru Mary Portas. ‘If you’re mediocre, you aren’t going to be there [in the future]. The big thing for retailers is going to be about experience.’
Portas cites Apple as a key example of a brand creating a store experience, with ‘genius’ bars and every Apple product on display, ready to be played with. ‘It made technology sexy,’ she says. ‘The whole thing has become this temple where people want to worship.’
Westfield – the Australian company that owns two cavernous shopping centres in London – surveyed 8,000 UK shoppers and found that technology and shopping are becoming synonymous.
We expect there to be free and fast WiFi in-store – we’re also keen on the idea of innovations such as virtual mirrors (where you’ll be able to see how something will look on, without having to remove so much as a sock), and efficient service.
Half of the people polled will leave a store to buy online if the queue is too long. Westfield’s Fashion Lounge (its personal shopping service) recently trialled a virtual shopping experience at London’s Sanderson hotel. By means of an interactive digital screen, a shopper could video-call a stylist from the Lounge and tell them their sartorial desires.
The stylist will then make a selection of clothing, which will arrive at the hotel within 90 minutes. For the cash-rich time-poor, it’s a snazzy proposition.
The combination of tech and shopping is clever – and when it works, it saves time and makes shopping less of a chore. That’s why canny retailers are now trying to merge their store and digital offerings.
Westfield also has the CollectPlus lounge, where you can pick up items ordered online, try them on, and return them immediately if they don’t fit. Marks & Spencer cites its own click-and-collect service as one of its customers’ favourite ways to shop.
Next will now deliver online buys to your local store the next day or, if you really can’t wait, order by noon and they will arrive at your home the same day.
Warehouse, meanwhile, will be teaming up with the Blippr app for its autumn/winter 2016 relaunch, which will bring you styling ideas and videos from its new creative director Emma Cook as you shop in-store.
At the new Smart Home experience in the Oxford Street branch of John Lewis, you can try out smart fridges that will send you a screen grab of their contents, ovens that will cook your dinner for you before you get home, and use adjustable lighting to gauge how that sofa will look at every time of day.
If you seek them out, these extra in-store experiences are everywhere. You can do yoga classes in the stores of activewear label Lululemon, or coffee tastings at Nespresso, while the White Company offers classes in how to create the perfect home (one assumes white waffle linen is involved).
Why not create your own espadrilles, cushions or pyjamas at John Lewis’ in-store workshop ‘The Makery’ (classes from £40-£45)? Or head to Accessorize for its soon-to-launch ‘badge bars’ where you’ll be able to have your bag, hat or scarf customised.
Topshop recently took a roving ‘contouring counter’ around the country, offering Kardashian-style make-up tips, and hosted pop-up residencies from cult designers such as Shrimps in its Oxford Circus flagship – where you’ll also find a Blink eyebrow bar, Hersheson blow-dry bar, Hand & Lock embroidery personalisation service, and its brilliant personal styling suite (free, and with no obligation to buy).
But the greatest arbiter of the in-store experience is Selfridges. Tomorrow it will launch its longest-ever running project, Shakespeare Refashioned, across its stores in London, Birmingham and Manchester.
Expect exclusive Bard-inspired collections from the likes of Christopher Kane and Alexander McQueen, as well as RADA-run audition workshops, in-store performances from up-and-coming musicians and even a production of a Shakespeare play in the store’s dedicated event space, Ultralounge.
However, despite the rampant advances of tech, there is still a strong case to be made for good, old-fashioned customer service. At the personal shopping lounge in Harvey Nichols’ revamped menswear area, men can have a beer, watch the football or game on a PlayStation while a dedicated stylist runs around the store picking out their new wardrobe.
Anita Barr, Harvey Nichols’ group buying director, says that people rarely make use of the futuristic gadgets the Birmingham store offers – such as a 360-degree digital mirror with video playback (does anyone really want to see their behind in that much detail?). For her, a great shopping experience is about brilliant service rather than clever technology.
Browns, the famed South Molton Street boutique, was bought last year by online retail giant FarFetch, but the company is now concentrating as much on bricks and mortar as a sharper online service (though it has introduced a new, easier to navigate, website).
‘The store is really important. It’s an emotional experience with that feeling of discovery,’ says women’s buying director Laura Larbalestier. As well as revamping the South Molton Street shop, there are also plans to open a new store in east London.
Last year, Modern Society opened on Shoreditch’s Redchurch Street, selling vintage and mid-century-modern-inspired homeware, clothes, furniture, and with a cute café at the front of the space. It has fast become a go-to neighbourhood hangout.
‘People talk to you because they’re interested in the space,’ says owner Nazifa Movsoumova. ‘We have customers who come in, have a coffee and then buy the homeware. You can buy everything from the cup your coffee comes in to the sugar bowl, the table and chairs.’
She has found loyal customers through her go-the-extra-mile service. ‘If someone wants something from one of our London-based designers that we haven’t ordered, we’ll get in touch and see if we can get it for them.’ And she has no plans to start selling online.
‘The response I’ve had from customers is that online is soulless, oversaturated and there’s too much content. There’s something nostalgic about going into a shop, feeling the fabrics and enjoying the experience.’
When you’re chased around the internet by images of a skirt you once clicked on and which is forever haunting your algorithms, the idea of finding something on a shelf, picking it up and taking it home feels refreshing.
Maybe the future of shopping isn’t so complicated after all.