The Store is Media
By Doug Stephens
Something I’ve spent nearly a decade of my life passionately advocating and exploring is my deeply held belief that physical retail stores are transitioning from being primarily a distribution channel for products to becoming a powerful media channel for branded experiences and stories. It’s a transition, that will, in my estimation, change everything – including how retailers generate revenue. Naturally, many have asked precisely what I mean by this notion that “the store is media”. So, here’s an excerpt from my latest book, Reengineering Retail: The Future of Selling in a Post-Digital World where I discuss exactly that.
The Shopping Space of the Future
Within a decade, sensor-driven replenishment, predictive analytic technology, immersive digital shopping experiences, subscription programs and a myriad of other connected shopping options—many of which we can’t yet even conceive of—will very effectively cater to our day-to-day product needs. We will never again wonder if we have milk in the fridge or detergent in the laundry room. We will order furniture and fashion online with implicit confidence because haptic technologies will give us the ability to touch and feel what we buy before we buy. Apparel-fitting algorithms infused with big data analytics will ensure the items we purchase are almost always ideally suited to both our bodies and our tastes. Using virtual or augmented reality technology in our home or or office to shop and connect with product experts will be as common in ten years as shopping in a physical store is today. And ultra-rapid and free delivery via a range of transport modes will put any product on our doorstep in minutes.
Save for a very few particular kinds of products, we will have absolutely no need to visit physical stores simply to look at products, as we do today. It’s that simple. Instead, the physical shopping space will become a medium to distribute the most powerful, joyful and emotionally galvanizing experiences possible. These physical media experiences will be aimed at accomplishing three things:
- conveying clear and engaging brand stories through physical engagement and multiple sensory inputs
- offering opportunities for immersive and kinetic product experiences
- acting as the interactive gateway to the entire brand ecosystem of products, services and purchase alternatives
Notice I didn’t mention anything about selling products. This, of course, is not to suggest that the retail space of the future won’t sell products—but that the sale of those products from within the four walls of the store will cease to be a priority. Instead, the goal of the store will be to create experiences so powerful that they catalyze sales across all available purchase points and channels.
Renowned retail shopping center developer Allan Zeman once said that it was time to reverse the design standard in malls, which have traditionally been 70 percent retail and 30 percent entertainment. The shopping center, he said, must be a place for entertainment first and retail second. Without a heavy emphasis on entertainment, Zeman maintained, people will have little reason to go to the mall at all. Similarly, I’m suggesting to you that in order to be viable in the future, retailers must apply this same approach to how they plan, design, build and operate their physical spaces: experiences first and foremost and products second.
I realize that this vision of the future is hard to square up with retail as we know it today. In the current era, retailers spend a disproportionate amount of their time busying them- selves with products. They buy them, inventory them, move them from place to place, merchandise and itemize them. They mark them up, mark them down, sell them, accept them back as returns and then physically count every damn one of them at least once a year. It’s to the point that in most retail companies, so many resources go to the movement and maintenance of product that customer experience becomes an afterthought, a mere garnish.
But in the retail space of the future, the most important product will be the experiences it offers shoppers. And the most successful retailers of tomorrow will obsess over the design, execution and measurement of experiences. In a world of unabated product proliferation, where just about any product can be reverse-engineered within days or weeks, experiences represent the last remaining fortress of differentiation and consumer value a retailer will have. Anyone can knock off your product—that’s easy. But recreating the unique alchemy of people, place, purpose and production that forms a wicked brand experience is infinitely more difficult, if not impossible, to copy. Consider how long other retailers have unsuccessfully been trying to replicate the Apple experience; and product has little to do with it. e truth is, Apple could sell shoes, groceries or pet food and its stores would likely be just as cool.
Moving the emphasis away from product distribution and toward the delivery of a physical media experience will change the very nature of how stores are conceived, located, designed, staffed, managed and measured.
“The future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed.” William Gibson
I’m very often asked which retailers today are executing against this “store as media” future, and while there is no single retailer that I believe embodies the vision completely, there are a number that, to varying degrees, are evolving toward the concept. In other words, this shopping space of the future actually exists today, just not all in one place. But look closely enough and you’ll see fragments of the future of retail scattered ever so finely throughout the market already. A small number of visionary entrepreneurs, brands and executives are out there right now poking at the retail universe to see what lies beyond and thumbing their noses at the rules the rest of the industry haplessly abides by.
So, what will the store of the future look, act and sound like? In my opinion it looks more or less like this:
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