In my opinion: the unexpected saviour of the retail experience?

By Samantha Losey, managing director, Unity

Losey: digital has boosted consumer expectations around the look, feel and visual identity of any brand

I travel down Oxford Street most days on my journey to the office and am constantly struck by two, rather obvious, things; firstly the extraordinary number of shops that are simply empty and the concomitant property management groups trying desperately to package them up and sell them off and, the truly shocking level of investment made in the outward presentation and visual merchandising of the stores that are still standing. It is a shadow of its former self, a physical representation of the state of physical retail in the UK and a harrowing reminder that if we don’t innovate and evolve we die. 

It seems to me that there is a crucial component missing in the brand thinking that leaves your literal shop windows looking like a forgotten bottega and that is the powerful and all-consuming rise of visual literacy among consumers of all ages, stages and backgrounds. The digital world has done one thing in abundance and that is boost consumer expectations around the look, feel and visual identity of any brand, regardless of what they are selling.

Between Instagram, Snap Chat, Tik Tok, Pinterest and the myriad other platforms used to collate imagery, video and interactive content there has been a phenomenal rise in the base-level literacy of the consumer not only with regards to product and brand origin but crucially aesthetic expectation. Without knowing it brands, who have invested so heavily in their digital footprints – to the significant detriment of their physical spaces – have created a monster when it comes to the highly visual, interactive representations that their core audiences have come to expect. 

Why is it only specialised department stores who continue to invoke the power of exceptional, transformative VM when it is clearly such a point of differentiation and driving customers back in store? Yes we can say that this is about destination marketing and the power of the stunning Liberty windows to create a sense of the brand in physical form, but who said everyone else could opt out of the visual economy? This is where audiences are now, yes they are online, no doubt they shop differently but fundamentally, now more than ever they are looking for beauty and inspiration regardless of demographic or aesthetic taste. As I pootle down Oxford Street Selfridges is like the great ‘bright’ hope, the last brand standing in terms of entertaining, eliciting joy or in any other way actively asking consumers to come in and see what lies behind the exceptional windows. 

This is now so much bigger than simply merchandising the latest looks well, this is the frontier on which user experience and physical customer journey is now being fought and the rest of the High Street needs to catch-up fast. The windows, whilst only ‘window dressing’ have a huge role to play in the way brands communicate with their customers and there is a singular lack of understanding about where audiences are truly at that is allowing brands to continue to under invest in their physical space. It’s a tough conversation as a brand manager, or a comms director or even a creative director to say ‘we need to make the stores beautiful again, the windows need to excite people’ when budgets are tight and everyone wants to throw them at digital ‘influencers’ or streetwear collaborations. But it has to be done, the reality is that the world has moved on and they are already used to looking, every day, at the aesthetically pleasing – if your physical isn’t matching up to your digital then watch your space tank.

Audiences are only getting more visually literate, their tastes for the beautiful in the everyday are only getting bigger and their expectations of what they need to see to actively engage with a brand, let alone go into a store are ever higher. They have an art gallery in their hand and as communicators brands are simply not leaning into this crucial insight about the shifting way they want to be fed product and experience. There is a reason that independent pop-up boutiques are doing better than everyone on the high street, and yes supporting local commerce plays a role in that but it isn’t because the age of big brand is over, it is because the age of the uninspiring is no longer acceptable. 

Over investment in digital to the detriment of the physical is how we have landed here, with household brands shutting stores every day, but the answer isn’t rooted in making the physical more digital, it is in making the physical more visual. This generation is indeed made up of digital natives but that inherently means it is made up of visual natives, audiences used to be communicated with through moving and static images. When I can look down at my phone and see the smallest of brands behaving like Bruce Webber why am I interested in a sad looking – totally non-representative – mannequin? I’m not, and until the High Street wises up to the way the digital world has changed the consumer, changed them in a way that should be highly profitable, it is going to stay left behind and unwanted. 

The possibilities and potential for physical retail excited me tremendously, there is so much that can be done to bring consumer back to IRL shopping, they are desperate for it, but brands are missing the mark and leaving a huge amount of revenue on the table as they do. I genuinely believe that a golden age of physical retail is possible, just look at those shopping ‘destinations’ that have no e-commerce footprint to speak of, but it requires a bit of investment and a bit of bravery and those will be the ultimate marker of who survives and who gets left behind.