Will physical retail displays ever become obsolete?

No matter how digital and immersive, the multi-sensory physical shopping experience will retain some classical elements.

Although it became a science only in the 21st century, visual merchandising – the appealing presentation of products in shops to maximise sales – is as old as retail itself. Meanwhile, its most common manifestations – POP displays, dump bins, gondolas and display tables – owe their existence to self-service supermarkets and stores that originally emerged in the United States after the First World War.

What originally was limited to window dressing evolved to include the interior of the shop as well, with the floorplan and the different types of shelves and displays all designed to make a congruent and lasting impression on customers. And while the digital age took visual merchandising to the next level in both offline and online environments, traditional 3D retail displays are the inner sanctum of bricks-and-mortar that online can’t just yet encroach upon.

In an effort to slow down the shrinking share of “bricks and mortar” (B&M) in retail, shop owners invest a lot in digitalising their outfits to offer a more engaging and personalised customer experience (CX), as well as to learn more about their clients. But in order to effectively outrival the online shopping experience, they also need to be aware of their unique strengths.

As attempts by competitors to imitate you are most reliable indicators of what your competitive advantages are, let’s see what e-commerce is the busiest trying to catch up with.

R&D in haptic solutions

In January 2020, haptic and tactile solution start-up Hap2U was an innovation award honoree at CES, the world’s biggest consumer electronic trade show. The French company’s haptic smartphone touchscreen enables its users to feel what they see, whether it’s the fur of a cat or the fabric of a garment.

While the online buying experience can be very rich in visual effects and sometimes has an audio aspect to it too, it is a let-down on the other three senses. To address its shortcomings, researchers have already been developing so called origami robots, which – when folded – can fit into a pocket and are capable of transmitting touch stimuli when used in a human-machine interface.

While these new types of robots open new horizons in robotics and have many applications beyond haptics, both they and Hap2U’s screen will take time to become genuine alternatives to human touch.

Before technological advancement finds the right solutions for incorporating touch and smell, and perhaps in the virtual customer experience, retail shops need to fully exploit their ability to engage their shoppers’ human dimensions through multi-sensory engagement. Statistics suggest that a high proportion of people are turned off e-commerce exactly because they miss the experience of touching merchandise. In an offline setting the most effective way of driving impulse buying, for example, is though the senses, and B&M is and will remain superior to online in terms of sensory stimulation.

Experiments with guided selling to provide a more fluid CX

Another area that e-commerce seems to have identified as in need of improvement is filtered searches in webstores. Online retail has always been regarded as rational, technical and transactional compared to B&M. Faceted search solutions relying on filters work well when preceded by hours spent reading specifications and reviews. If you have a concrete idea about what you’re looking for, you can easily get from the site’s category page to the product via faceted navigation.

However, there are plenty of moving parts in the process. Once you are halfway down an avenue – or a virtual aisle – and you are unhappy with where you ended up, you may need to go back and deselect in order to reactivate the options that you ruled out in previous steps. You might be ready to extend your price range for an enhanced functionality.

According to a Gartner report 51 per cent of sales organisations either have already deployed or plan to deploy algorithmic-guided selling solutions which put customers’ needs and expected outcomes at the focus, rather than model numbers and specifications. With the help of AI, the questions asked from the customer change dynamically based on previous answers and in line with customer preferences gleaned from user profiles.

However, even with the help of guided selling tools, the online buying experience still remains rather linear. In a physical shop there is much more scope for reminder and suggestion buying: when displays will help you remember the items you need but slipped your mind, or when posters and in-store assistants can give you quick ideas concerning which of your existing needs a new product can meet.

Shelves will be shelves

In the race for the customer, the physical shopping experience is becoming increasingly immersive and experiential. Shops will often look more like adventure parks, theatres or art galleries.

But no matter whether you fumble around in the dark amid brightly lit clothes racks and display tables in a Hollister store, grab a Canada Goose coat off the hanger and try it on in a dressing room cooled to -25°C, or take a highly Instagrammable selfie of yourself on a yellow bike with l’Occitane’s signage against a virtual Provence backdrop, traditional display solutions will be part of the narrative.

© Business Reporter 2020