In a year that could be described as tumultuous for the world of retail, one of the world’s foremost consumer futurists, Doug Stephens, has a compelling case on why the industry will not only survive in the coming years, but undergo a second evolution, spelling “the end of the beginning of e-commerce.” At the Business of Fashion’s VOICES event in December 2017, he captivated and provoked a packed auditorium with his analysis of one of the world’s most debated sectors.
Since the release of his first book, The Retail Revival: Re-Imagining Business for the New Age of Consumerism in 2013, change in the global retail sector has accelerated beyond even the boldest predictions. Online giants Amazon and Alibaba are growing at a dizzying pace; hundreds of well-known bricks and mortar retailers have closed their doors, and brands across categories are pivoting quickly to meet the needs and expectations of their new consumers.
During his presentation at VOICES, Doug reminded the audience of those 8,642 stores that had closed in the US in 2017 alone- casualties of the e-commerce boom. He cited figures such as the $1.9 trillion spent in the US in 2016 in online retail transactions, and Alibaba’s $8.6 billion in sales in the 24 hours of Singles Day in 2017. With Amazon set to become the number one apparel seller in the US by the end of this year, Stephens declared that the beginning of e-commerce is over- and that retail is far from dead - it’s just shedding its skin.
Today, e-commerce is being reshaped by new services and offerings such as subscription models, conversational commerce, and 3D printing (Nike have promised that 3D printed sneakers are imminent), but what of physical stores? “Media is becoming the store,” said Stephens, alluding to the rise of online product experiences. “As a result, stores must become the media. Stores are the most powerful, measurable, manageable form of media that a brand has at its disposal. While the world becomes more and more virtual, people are increasingly craving physical experiences.”
“The store won’t die,” said Stephens. “But it must change. Brands and retailers that stand out from the crowd are innovating to turn shopping into a rich, immersive experience that leverages technology to enhance the way customers can interact with a brand. Stephens highlighted the in-store experiences of industry leaders like Apple, Sneakerboy and Nordstrom, while citing New York’s Sonos store as a great example of sophisticated retail innovation. The 4,200-square-foot space provides customers with soundproof listening rooms, each designed by a well-known interior designer, so dropping in is like enjoying a playlist at your most stylish friend’s apartment.
“Stores need to be about experiences – less stores, more stories.”
According to Stephens, the new world of retail will combine entertainment, hospitality and community with commerce to create an exciting mix of experiences. “Stores need to be about experiences –less stores, more stories.” He believes the future of commerce is community. Stephens asks, “Why can’t communal experiences and shopping come together?” Here he emphasises the importance of injecting heart and soul into business, while fusing the in-store experience with the virtual world online.As we move into the post-digital era, the concept of retail will continue to transform. “And yes, there will be winners and losers on both sides,” predicts Stephens. Concluding his session on a playful note, Stephens showed an image of a bus stop to demonstrate our shift into the experience economy. “This is retail for the last hundred years,” he said. “It’s functional. Stephens then went on to show a new-model bus stops in Montréal, which looked much more fun. Featuring playground-style swings and gym equipment – they were infinitely more experiential and community-driven – a great analogy for the qualities that retail needs to harness to survive. “Creative ideas are things that push us out of our comfort zone, so it takes a brave company to have the courage to act on those things,” he added, encouraging a wake-up call for retailers to create experiences that are engaging, unique, personalised, and surprising, but also repeatable. Stephens pictures a bright future for those retailers that are able to adapt in what will be an exciting yet challenging era ahead. He added, “where there’s disruption, there is also reinvention.”