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Reopening retail: Four ways to embrace creativity, safely

Reopening retail; four ways to embrace creativity, safely

Meredith O’Shaughnessy, Creative Brand and Retail Strategist at Meredith Collective

Coronavirus has been the final reckoning for great swathes of retail, and it’s been brutal. Some high street stalwarts (Warehouse, Oasis, Accessorise) won’t open their doors again. Others are tentatively reopening but with a cautious eye on the potential for a second spike in infections.

With caution in front of mind, it might be tempting for retailers to throw creativity to the wind. My plea is don’t. Creativity is what will save you. Creatives – from designers to dancers, architects to digital artists have much to teach us about how to creatively use space, engage within boundaries and bring us together through shared experiences. With more and more shops reopening their doors here’s how they can respond with creativity right now to draw in new fans, responsibly.

  1. Safe retail doesn’t need to be sterile

It goes without saying that safety is everyone’s priority but that doesn’t mean that the experience of a clean and safe environment needs to be devoid of personality. Touches of creativity will be more welcome than ever.

Let’s consider queuing, which will continue to be a fact of life as we maintain social distancing. Hastily constructed queue systems were erected overnight in supermarket car parks and now we’ve seen lines stretching from Primark and Nike Town and beyond! Let’s make the queue part of the experience! Take a leaf from Disneyworld’s book. Ok, you might not be able to build full-scale immersive queue experiences but creative touches will make all the difference. From live music to creative lighting, fragrance to foliage to interactive AR games there are ways to make queuing that bit less onerous and a little more enjoyable.

Similarly, hand sanitising stations are ripe for creative redesigns. Take inspiration from this recent competition, ‘Fountain of Hygiene’ in conjunction with London’s Design Museum and the British Red Cross, challenging designers to reimagine hand sanitising. The winners included a hand sanitising bubble machine, seaweed encased capsules and colour-changing gels. There’s no reason creativity can’t find its way into hand cleaning and even become a moment of fun rather than an anxious reminder of our worst fears.

  1. Use space to create stories (not just sell stuff)

Shops weren’t built for social-distancing but that doesn’t mean retailers can’t use this time as an opportunity to rethink their spaces now – and for the future. Some brands are already embracing this model, in January Canadian outerwear retailer Canada Goose was ahead of their time and opened a new store in Toronto without any inventory. It sounds crazy but it’s incredibly clever, because instead customers are treated to a multi-sensory experience so they can understand why its coats have the high price tag.

The entrance to the store is a glass walkway that simulates cracking ice. Customers then enter the ‘Gear Room’ in order to select a coat of their choice before entering ‘The Cold Room’ where freezing arctic conditions are replicated up to -12 degrees celsius, including real snow. The walls display original films about cold and nature in an excellent example of brand storytelling. If the ‘Cold Room’ has done its job, customers can order in-store and if they live locally have the item delivered to their home that same day, or the next day nationwide.

Think how exciting it would be if more brands took customers on a journey through the heritage, production or inspiration behind a range using touch-free technologies or at-a-distance artistic installations?

  1. Blend physical and digital for 360 experiences

Many brands have worked hard during lockdown to increase their digital presence and make it relevant for increasingly experience-hungry consumers. So now’s the time to translate online engagement to offline retail. Of course, that can only be done by ensuring the safety of shoppers and by giving them a reason to come out.

And who will drive the return to retail? Well, according to the National Retail Federation in the US, despite Gen Z being heralded as our first true Digital Natives, almost all members of Generation Z prefer to shop in bricks-and-mortar stores that offer a tangible experience.

The hunger these younger consumers have for in-store experiences is paving the strategies of the future – and contrary to popular assumption, the future is not online –  “their last great experience is their new expectation”. More than any other generation, Gen Z is not simply seeking places to buy but demanding experiences rooted in personal connection. A smartphone is a necessity but being able to step into a meaningful, in-person experience is what captures them.

  1. Get close and cosy with partners

Take Secret Cinema who paired up with Haagen Daaz to launch its lockdown friendly ‘Secret Sofa’. With travel again allowed, it’s now tapped into the resurgence of Drive-In Cinema, partnering with home of racing cars, Goodwood as its premier venue and speaker brand JBL for in-car audio. Clearly this is a different proposition than redesigning a retail space, but it can teach us a lesson in smart partnership. Four brands, all somewhat curtailed during lockdown can, together offer a smart, social and safe experience by coming together.

This takes creative thinking – how can your retail brand offer more by partnering with others with suitably flexible spaces? Or how can logistical challenges be solved through others’ products?

When we were called to create an exciting launch environment for a new range of premium Whirlpool appliances we recognised that placing, what some might argue as a less “sexy” product, against leaders their respective luxury fields next to each other would make for a more engaging experience for the customers. We developed the award winning five-day pop-up ‘Keeping up with the Jones’, a walk-through multi-room experience where each brand involved benefited from the other, whilst the individual product highlights were enhanced rather than lost.

Reimagining retail for the better, not just for now  

It will be months, maybe years before shoppers return in their pre-COVID numbers. However, as WARC’s Annabel Hamill says, retail stores must “find a new balance between bricks-and-mortar and e-commerce,” and “expect a boom in click and collect at ‘multi-function’ stores, pre-booking shopping slots online, seamless delivery, and more”. All of these functional elements underpin a COVID-ready retail strategy but fail to make the connection between the safe-shopping demands of now, and the experience-first demands of the future.

Of course, retailers need to ensure safety as they reopen their doors, but why can’t they go a step further and underpin safe shopping with the foundations of creativity we will need to thrive in the post-Corona experience economy?

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