Elmwood: Engage and inspire – the new frontier for retail

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Brands that immerse their audiences in personalised multi-sensory experiences will reap the rewards, says Elmwood global brand experience director Damian Ferrar.

Damian Ferrar
Elmwood logo

Physical design and aesthetic are paramount when it comes to designing retail experiences. But, too often, how the brand’s story is woven into this canvas is not considered, particularly in a world where the pace of change and the needs of the next billion consumers need to be not only considered but acted on. This means reviewing current return on investment models to balance revenue with data and product with experience. This gives 21st century brands a new set of dilemmas, driven by value exchange and relevance – arguably the key to sustainable conversations and relationships between brands and audiences. 

Technology is playing a major role in reframing the retail landscape. By 2020, 50 billion things will be connected to the internet. This offers massive personalisation opportunities from which both store and shopper can benefit; from Estimote’s Beacons to the more sophisticated PowaTag and Amazon’s Flow. These all push greetings, information and discounts to consumers when they walk into a store or within close proximity. PowaTag and Flow can quickly identify products and instantly purchase them online whether customers are at home or instore and, of course, with Amazon’s drone delivery service it will be delivered to your doorstep in the blink of an eye.

The changing consumer landscape 

The good news is that social media exhaustion is driving the desire to have real-world experiences. People are rediscovering convivial experiences and, perhaps unexpectedly, ‘generation Z’ are looking for safe, romantic experiences while ‘boomers’ are looking for risk and excitement. Brands are recognising this and recalibrating the way they engage with consumers.

So how do we respond to this evolving landscape? Brands have to move from curators of content to commissioners, involving perhaps the biggest recent shift in retail design – the need to integrate your story into the physical design and aesthetic. At the same time, you need to break down barriers between the physical and digital spaces you inhabit. How can you reflect online what’s going on instore, and vice versa? Connect your consumers, create niche communities and create experiences and content that they value, and they will spend more time with you.

US author and consultant Ty Montague has ignited the concept of ‘storydoing’ – companies that create products, services and experiences that are manifestations of their philosophy, presenting an engaging, authentic and meaningful narrative. A narrative that your customers and employees need to be living and breathing.

Think cinema. Think theatre. Immerse your audience in a personalised multi-sensory experience blending moving image, sound, smell, temperature and haptic surfaces. Let them play with your brand. The Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle is a great example of an immersive customer experience. What started as a bit of fish-throwing fun has turned their market stall into a retail destination.

Last month Selfridges ran Fragrance Lab. A colleague and I booked a session online and presented ourselves to the white check-in desk at the Wonder Room in the store a few weeks later. It felt like being on the set of A Life Less Ordinary. Although very experimental, it was a great experience and identifies the opportunities brands have to design theatre in the retail space.

The Selfridges Fragrance Lab creates theatre and personalisation in the retail space

First we had to respond to images and questions on an iPad app. We then donned some headphones and an MP3 player, which led us on a tour through dark and light spaces to explore the impact of different smells. Our choices of both physical objects on the journey and the responses to the app came to fruition in a shop window filled with dry ice, where people on Oxford Street looked on. In a one-to-one consultancy booth I was introduced to the fragrance that best suited my personality. Interestingly, it was not necessarily one I would have chosen off the shelf, but because of the experience and personality notes, I liked it.

As well as the Fragrance Lab, there was an HTC-sponsored skate park, located in the original Selfridges Hotel. Along with a café and training for those new to skateboarding, the temporary facility that opened earlier this year further demonstrates how the Selfridges brand is experimenting with the design of retail experiences.


Another opportunity to prototype and experiment is the pop up. Successful Paris boutique Colette recently created a temporary retail experience in Miami. Located in a multi-storey car park, it was more of an Art Drive-Thru, with girls on roller skates bringing selected purchases to the car.

This month Bentley is in New York’s Meatpacking District, offering the opportunity to design a car that suits and reflects your personality from a potential 1.4 billion combinations.

Mohamed A El-Erian’s ‘Secrets of Starbucks’ Secret Menu’ article on BloombergView last month also underlined the need not to forget the human element of the retail experience. Theatre, personalisation and blurring the physical digital divide are important but peer-to-peer marketing and astute customer awareness are equally important. El-Erian wrote: “Starbucks prepared and priced a drink they had never heard of before and my daughter was delighted – so much so that she took a picture of the drink and posted it on her Instagram before she even tasted it.” Genius.

So celebrate bricks and mortar, but make them work harder. Do not be in any doubt that your digital platforms are important. 

Before moving to Apple, Angela Ahrendts referred to digital as “the million square foot store”, highlighting the “mind-share equals market-share” model.

Burberry opened its flagship store in Shanghai this year to bring the brand’s digital world to life as it continues to blur the lines between physical and digital. The eighth store in the city, it has been designed around multi-sensory experiences. The brand describes the store as part event space, part entertainment hub and part store.

People remember, and more importantly talk about, brands for the experience they have with them as much as the products and services they sell. Embrace the opportunities this presents to begin a relationship with your audience through mutually beneficial exchange of data. 

The success of brands in contemporary society revolves around engaging with the hearts and minds of your audience. Experiment and iterate. Over time it will generate huge value.

Damian Ferrar
Global brand experience director, 

19-23 Fitzroy Street

T: (0)20 7637 0884
E: damian.ferrar@elmwood.com
W: www.elmwood.com
T: twitter.com/ElmwoodTweets

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