Covid-19 has affected every aspect of our lives. In retail, it has accelerated and amplified challenges that were already weighing down the industry. The impact has been brutal and far-reaching. However, if history teaches us one thing, it’s that challenging times reward those who act.

Erik Mueller-Ali, vice president, CallisonRTKL

Erik Mueller-Ali

The pandemic has reminded us that people come first – and that safety, health and wellbeing are paramount. The focus is now on human behaviour, not consumer behaviour, and for our retail environments we are shifting from transactional experiences to meaningful interactions. The humble store is evolving from a place to merely buy something to an always-fresh, flexible space of real discovery.

For the shopper, more thought is going into each purchase, which is evident in the e-shopping carts being abandoned at virtual checkout. Physical retail environments, with the seduction of instant gratification, are proving their power in converting sales.

Despite research showing physical stores will account for £8 of every £10 to be spent in retail by 2025, we’re still perpetuating the notion that retail is dying. Retail is no more dead than the restaurant industry. Neither will be what they were pre-pandemic, but retail has always existed in a state of Darwinian evolution.

It’s adapt or get out of the way – we’re just seeing this play out at an accelerated rate and on a mass scale as the sector seeks to rebalance itself after years of procrastination.

Selfridges sign and window

Source: Shutterstock/ Yau Ming Low

The purpose of a store in 2020 has changed. Its mission is to nurture identity, connection and loyalty, not just distribute goods. As a three-dimensional representation of the brand, it informs and excites, bringing meaning to both real-world and online interactions.

Most fit-outs aren’t suited to this, so we should be looking to optimise existing footprints as a starting point and considering new formats that allow stores to be nimble and dynamic.

Then it becomes about appreciating and grading a store’s performance in the same way we might online.

This means measuring engagement, dwell time, unique visitors, referrals, and so on, as more accurate measures of the shop’s value.

With this we say goodbye to fixed structures bound by long leases and embrace a more fluid definition of retail. Pop-ups and retail residencies with modular stores and seasonal rotations are on the rise. An effective way to mitigate risk and remain agile in an unstable climate, these allow brands to combat consumer fatigue, create partnerships and maintain engagement with timelier offerings.

Tech developments

The spectacle and seeming spontaneity of this activity is something malls can look to emulate, too, with a fresh roster of pop-ups providing an impetus for shoppers to keep coming back.

Selfridges London is the perfect example, with the department store announcing a Bike Shop residence in partnership with tech firm Smartech to address the coronavirus cycling boom.

It is about facilitating that human connection - giving your brand a human face

This is retail in real time.

Meanwhile, if we layer this with new technology solutions, we find more ways to enhance store formats. Tech-enabled stores are improving service models and removing points of friction, whether by having outfits in your size ready and waiting for you when you walk in or allowing you to click and collect via a vending machine-style interface. These advancements not only streamline operations, they provide a complete shopping ecosystem that links the digital to the physical.

People must come first and sales personnel remain critical to the experience, with new technology freeing them up to play more of a personal shopper and brand advocate role. Again, it is about prioritising and facilitating that human connection – giving your brand a human face.

If you create spaces that bring people joy and make them feel good, the sales, offline and online, will come. The focus for bricks-and-mortar retail should be to complement the online portal to create a complete brand experience. This is how we bring meaning back to retail and people back to our stores.

Erik Mueller-Ali is vice-president of CallisonRTKL